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, one credit card. One mortgage, no job…He'll be near retirement age by the time they --- he gets through the lost decade." The oddly-behaving banker of "Blood" has a job "not high enough up to qualify for one of the made bonuses they'd been handing out in the boom days, but high enough to have his family held hostage while he went to the bank with one of the bad guys and opened the safe."
In contrast to the gloom that pervades most of his characters' lives, Doyle makes these stories sparkle with an energy fueled by his crisp, intensely realistic dialogue. That dialogue (delivered without quotation marks) can make Hemingway look positively verbose, as in this exchange between two brothers, one offering amateur marriage counseling to the other, in the story "Ash":
"--Go a bit mad.
--How would I go mad?
--I'd need a wife.
That ability to see the humor, even of a dark variety, in their collective plight is a trait that redeems many of Doyle's quietly desperate men and softens what might otherwise be a chronicle of unremitting bleakness. And it's that quality that allows us to read these stories with a glimmer of hope that these characters someday may stumble their way to a happier fate.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on May 2, 2011