Bullfighting, By Roddy Doyle

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The Independent Culture

The forty- and fiftysomething family men who travel through Roddy Doyle's second short story collection offer dramatic variations on a theme: that of the modern Irish male, hurtling towards the mid-life crisis-ridden territory of cooling marriages, grown-up children, greying hairs and cancer scares. The crises are set in and around contemporary Ireland but, unlike his previous collection The Deportees, which dramatised the nation's new multicultural demography, Bullfighting's terrain is mostly psychological.

In spirit, it could pass for the unspecific "American small town" in which John Updike set his stories of marital malaise. Yet Bullfighting's troubled men do not follow in the Harry Rabbit Angstrom tradition. They are in mid-life, certainly, and many in the midst of an existential stock-take of relationships with wives, children, their looks and libidos. But none feels the need to take flight, or have sex with younger women, or regard their other halves with bored disdain. Instead, they channel their sharpening sense of mortality and surge of sexual hunger into family life, not outside it. They love fatherhood, they fancy their wives and cherish their pets with a passion which presents a modern Irish masculinity that departs from the old stereotype. They are also humourous about their midlife condition, even if blackly so, so that their wry observations reflect a sporting, stoical sensibility. Martin, in "The Photograph", can stomach baldness but draws the line at his rectal abscess. The father in "The Slave" sees defeat in his slippers: "I never wanted to be a man who wore slippers."

Those most at breaking point are the men whose marriages have lost emotional momentum. The trauma of communication breakdown, and bewilderment over the exact moment of rupture, repeats itself across the book. In the opening story, "Recuperation", Hanahoe cuts an isolated figure, walking across town and reassuring himself that's he is "fine" in his marriage, while quietly admitting: "He's been living alone for years... There was no violence. No one was hit. No one played away from home". The same sad sentiment emerges in "The Dog", and again in "The Joke".

For all that is unsaid between some husbands and wives, there is a fair lathering of fiery sexuality, love and sentimentality in Doyle's slices of marital life. The wives are distantly earthy, alluring, with a touch of Molly Bloom. Husbands remain dazzled after decades of marriage, as Tom reflects in the closing story, "Sleep" when he watches Tara, his wife of 26 years, sleeping. George's wife in "Animals" looks at him with naked lust as he tends to the children.

The schmaltz, such as it may seem, is leavened by humour. It works most brilliantly in his artful dialogues, both in capturing the gaps in communication and in the banter between brothers, mates, and drinking buddies.

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