Anyone looking for a guide to the psyche of the middle-aged man would do much worse than to settle down with Roddy Doyle's outstanding new collection of 13 stories, his second. Set, with one exception, in present-day Dublin and its environs, they offer the literary equivalent of an MRI of the souls of a troubled, but deeply sympathetic, group of characters.
In his Acknowledgements, Doyle gives a nod to Nick Hornby, and it's a fitting one. Doyle's characters are the man-boys of Hornby's HIGH FIDELITY and ABOUT A BOY grown up. They've reached the broad valley of midlife having played by a set of rules that promised at least contentment, if not happiness, and now feel betrayed by either ennui or strife in their personal relationships, stagnation in their jobs, and a sense that life isn't destined to improve any time soon. The 42-year-old narrator of "The Slave," a monologue inspired by the early morning discovery of a dead rat in his kitchen, speaks for his cohort:
"It's middle age. I know that. It's getting older, slower, tired, bored, useless. It's death becoming something real. The old neighbours from my childhood dying. And even people my own age. Cancer, mostly."
For these men, life's rough patches are papered over by the reflexive response that everything is "grand," and by far the worst fate they can imagine is to be labeled an "eejit." Most have fashioned for themselves a hard-earned set of insights into their predicament. Reflecting on his life during a long doctor-prescribed walk, the protagonist of "Recuperation" muses, "Who's to blame? No one. It just happened. It's too late now." And there's the school teacher in "Teaching" who realizes, after more than two decades in the classroom, "Things changed. It wasn't just him. He wasn't denying anything: his heart wasn't in it."
The danger in a collection like this one, with its variations on a theme, is that after a few stories are digested, it will seem as if one's been eating a steady diet of leftovers. Doyle adds enough spice to his recipes to avoid that problem. "Funerals" is the touching story of a man who slowly finds pleasure in driving his elderly parents to the funerals of friends and relatives ("He was a child one minute, an older, much stupider man the next."), and eventually learns a long-held family secret. In "Blood," a banker, a "heterosexual man who lived in Dublin and enjoyed the occasional pint with his friends," develops a vampire-like taste for blood that leads to behavior that can only be described as bizarre. The protagonist of the poignant story "The Joke," desperate to revive his flagging marriage, ponders whether an off-color story will bring long-vanished laughter back into his relationship.
The recent boom and bust of the Irish economy is alluded to only obliquely, but a sense of the gulf between rich and working class hovers over several of the stories. There's Ken, one of four pubmates on a dismal trip to Spain in the title story, tethered to his BlackBerry and announcing proudly when he puts it down, "There now…That should keep the economy afloat." Contrast his smugness with the lament of George, the protagonist of "Animals," who's certain "He exploited no one; he invested in nothing. He has one mortgage