Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In the ring

 So! Bullfighting, everybody! That's something very manly that guys do, right? Of course they do it wearing pink pants that are fancier than anything I own and awesome hats that look like giant croissants, but still! Blood! Gore (and goring!) Very manly - and so is Roddy Doyle's new collection of short stories, Bullfighting, which is all about middle-aged or older Irish men having various quiet crises as they grapple with complacent marriages, grown kids, and the shadow of the Irish economic recession that lurks in the background of every story.

There's very little to differentiate the different stories - Doyle's tone hardly varies from piece to piece, so it seems more like a long, disjointed monologue. In "Recuperation," a spectacularly disinterested older man is ordered to walk by his doctor, but his stroll is weighted by recollections from the past and he feels out of place and useless in his changing neighborhood. In "The Photograph," a small group of friends watch one of their own slowly die of cancer. A listless, worn-out teacher summons the energy to try to captivate his students again in "Teaching." In "Funerals," a middle-aged son finds a strange solace in driving his elderly parents to funerals. The couple's gentle bickering is sweet, although the story ends by forcing him to confront his parents' deterioration. In "The Dog," a younger couple's dissolution is delayed, but not avoided, by acquiring a dog. "Animals" is the most funny, both lighthearted and macabre, as anyone who has simultaneously had children and small pets has probably had to deal with hasty burials and inadequate explanations. "Blood" is a bizarre little piece about a man who suddenly develops an inexplicable craving. The titular story, "Bullfighting," follows four friends on a trip to from Dublin to Spain.

Doyle's flat, unaffected tone works well with the dark, stultifying subject matter, although Bullfighting doesn't really reach for any emotional highs or lows - there are marriages gone boring and kids drifting away, but nothing really wrenching besides the grind of middle-class life in a stuttering country. There's also very little variation, with none of Doyle's mostly-unnamed characters differentiating themselves. The men bemoan their cooling marriages and adult children but there's little grief or rage, just mostly acquiescence.

Doyle's at his best in dialog (he's one of those writers who eschews quotation marks) and he delivers believable banter between his characters. He's a terse, short, to-the-point writer (a miracle, almost, for an Irishman) who never uses two words when one will do, and his spare style is well-suited to short stories, although the sameness of these makes all the stories blur together in recollection.

Also, I'd just like to point out the similarities between the cover design of Doyle's Bullfighting and that other estimable Irish short-story writer, TC Boyle's Stories:

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