"Larry Linnane liked having daughters. He got great value out of them, great crack." It's opening sentences like that that put many people straight off Roddy Doyle, a writer whose staccato narratives, conversational inflections and pervasive wry humour often get him sneeringly dismissed as another casual peddler of Irish blarney to the popular imagination.
Fans, by contrast, contend that his translucent style is the result of an extremely clever process of self-effacement, one that negates sentimentality but pays the kind of attention to emotional and linguistic detail that reminds as much of playwriting and reportage as it does of novelism. One doubts that Doyle himself would have much truck with either camp: he describes his own writing as "an awful lot of dialogue and an awful lot of gaps, and when in doubt, say 'fuck'."
As Doyle explains in his introduction, these stories were written in 800-word monthly chapters for a multicultural newspaper, Metro Eireann, published in Dublin by two Nigerian journalists. In the Ireland of even 20 years ago such a concept would have been pure science fiction, which is a measure of how fast things have moved: as Doyle tells it, "I went to bed in one country and woke up in another". With astonishing swiftness, Ireland turned from a country that produced emigrants into a wealthy European nation that attracted immigrants of its own, and from a predominantly mono-racial society to a vigorously multicultural one.
All these stories were written in increments, to deadline, and haven't been messed around with in the transition to book form. Despite the rough edges, the best are very good indeed. In the title story, perhaps the most engaging of the lot, we re-encounter Jimmy Rabbitte, the former manager of a little-known Irish outfit called The Commitments, who is now 36, married with kids and starting another band (this time "no white Irish need apply" and you're out if you like the Corrs). The Deportees – Romanians on trumpet and squeezebox, Nigerian on "djembe drum and scream" – play Woody Guthrie songs at an Indian wedding. It's a zippy, tight piece, with a hugely infectious sense of fun, which offers a righteous KMRIA [Kiss My Royal Irish Arse] to Hollywood rumours that a proposed Commitments sequel will star the Corrs themselves.
The odd dud apart, the rest of the collection surprises with its range. There's a genuinely spooky ghost story about a Polish au pair, a sinister pram and a pair of spoiled children, and there's the charming "Black Hoodie", about two light-fingered teenage entrepreneurs who dream up a consultancy business based on the shortcomings of store detectives. " 57% Irish", about a doctoral student who develops a citizenship test around a showreel of Roy Keane goals and Riverdance, is less successful: it feels rushed, a common, though understandable, flaw of the collection as a whole. Those in search of Doyle's best work might look elsewhere – to the Paula Spencer novels in particular – but the evident sincerity and unrepentant good cheer of these stories will carry the reader a long way with them. And with luck, the new wave of non-Irish Irish writing is just beginning.