Men of a certain age

Roddy Doyle takes a risk in mining precarious contentment of middle age

(Anthony Schultz/Globe Staff)
By John Freeman
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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Roddy Doyle hasn’t lost his edge; he just keeps the blade tucked away now. Like an insurance policy. This is unusual for a writer who cut his way into a readership, as Doyle did with novels like “The Commitments’’ and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.’’ These books announced a slashing new Dublin voice, one that was churlish and musical and deeply unsentimental. Most writers would have blunted such an instrument through over-use.

Not Doyle, though, and two decades since he burst into print he has turned to the short story, proving he now has a deeper, subtler way to draw blood. In 2007 he released “The Deportees,’’ a collection of very brief tales about immigrants and outsiders in today’s Ireland. Now comes “Bullfighting,’’ a volume of 13 tales about men who are in the sweet spot of middle age, but wondering why it doesn’t feel a little sweeter.

It’s worth pointing out that this might be the riskiest book Doyle has ever put together. Animating an IRA assassin as Doyle did in his recent Henry Smart trilogy is one thing: It’s a tale made for adventure and revenge. The stories in “Bullfighting’’ are of a completely different order. Doyle’s heroes live vaguely uneventful suburbanish lives, love their wives, are proud of their children, and visit their aging parents on weekends. Some of these fellows are even financially solvent.

Happiness, in its way, has typically been a killer for fiction, but in “Bullfighting’’ Doyle does something far harder than it might at first appear. He finds a rich world in middle-age contentment, that trough between the early battles of youth and the great fires of aging. Standing between these poles lends Doyle’s narrators space to take stock, have a sense of humor about what lies before and beyond them. Often what they see coming on the horizon is vaguely humiliating.

“He started grunting whenever he picked something up,’’ writes Doyle of one protagonist in “The Photograph,’’ a fantastically layered story that begins humorously then shades dark. “He hated it. He’d tell himself to stop. But he’d forget. It became natural. Pick up the soap in the shower grunt. Start the lawnmower grunt. He didn’t have to grunt. He was well able to bend over and the rest of it. He asked the lads, and they all did it too.’’

Here are the tell-tale signs of middle age, seen through a cheery eye, the sad mixed with the humorous. “The Photograph’’ moves on from these hilarious asides into a story about the narrator’s good friend, cut down early by cancer. In “The Dog,’’ a marriage begins to drift when a woman discovers hair growing on her husband’s ears. “Funerals’’ revolves around a family that always visits the chip shop after friends and neighbors are buried.

Doyle’s casual style makes these stories feel natural, autobiographical, like the kind of thing a man might tell you over a warm beer in a quiet bar during a slow Saturday afternoon. There is not a lot of fancy dancing here. These pieces have tidy beginnings, complicated middles, and satisfying ends. They would seem too well-joined were the voice that Doyle calls up at will not so warm, so unguarded. These are unpretentious men. And unlike so many middle-aged narrators in American literary fiction, Doyle’s characters don’t bend over backward to make you dislike them; nor do they try too hard to charm.

This genially troubled tone turns out, too, to be the perfect note for a book, which is mostly about intimations of aging. “Old age isn’t a battle,’’ Philip Roth wrote in “Everyman.’’ “Old age is a massacre.’’ It’s true none of us are spared, but there’s a way to go down laughing, and Doyle seems to have found it in “Bullfighting,’’ and as a reader you want to chummy up to this impossible but appealing levity. Time and again Doyle’s characters realize that it’s not the routine that is killing them, or the dying, it’s the feeling that they must break out of it all in order to be happy.

Still, they do things to break it up and then laugh at their own folly. One character starts going on gargantuan walks. Another one buys some pets for his children, and then lies about them when the animals begin dying, so he can replace them secretly. These are the things good men do, and even when Doyle’s heroes are doing something naughty, it’s got a warm, tea-and-toast-in-the-kitchen glow to it. In the brilliant title story, a man recalls a time early on with Elaine, his wife, as she was trying something new in bed. She poured a melted Mars bar into her navel, but then caught him looking at his watch. “Have you got something more important to do?’’ she asked him. And the answer, for him, and for all of Doyle’s men, for that matter, is no. Really, they’re exactly where they want to be.

John Freeman is editor of Granta and author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’

By Roddy Doyle
Viking, 224 pp., $25.95