Roddy Doyle has done something remarkable with his new short story collection, Bullfighting: he has taken the precepts that normally govern the best of women’s writing and turned them on their heads – or more accurately, turned them around to face the other direction. His subject here is the emotional worlds of men, the deep, inscrutable undercurrents of middle-aged males who feel betrayed by both progressiveness and the forward thrust of early 21st-century capitalism. These are men preoccupied with how their attempts at goodness – particularly goodness in the domestic space – can leave them hollowed out and dissatisfied, defeated and alone. It’s a daring, almost brazen play on Doyle’s part, to graft these typically feminine anxieties onto modern-day men. And it’s so wonderfully successful, so brilliantly fresh.
The quintessential example of this is Doyle’s story “The Joke.” It tells the fairly straightforward tale of a man who becomes emotionally unraveled by an off-the-cuff remark from his wife. She’s in the other room, talking on the phone, when he overhears her say, “No, no. He’ll come and collect you.” He doesn’t even know to whom she’s speaking – her sister, perhaps, her mother, a friend, his mother maybe. All he knows is how that one flippant remark – “No, no. He’ll come and collect you …” – sets off an emotional eruption within him, an awareness of how taken for granted he feels, how his devotion has left him exploited, emasculated and deprived of the ability to say no. This irrational response is compounded by the fact that he once helped a friend of his wife flee an abusive relationship with the same uxorious faith expected of him here. It’s a subtle story, but jarring in the way it flips the gender dynamic we typically expect from short fiction.
Doyle enjoys doing this a lot. The title piece, “Bullfighting,” is a masterstroke of satire on multiple levels. Its title may conjure up a connection with the nonfiction of Hemingway, but its subject matter certainly doesn’t: it tells the story of a group of middle-aged Irish men who travel to Spain together for a vacation of male bonding. Doyle not only plays with our perception of male bonding but also with our perception of women’s perception of what male bonding is, or isn’t. Here’s the protagonist Donal, leading in to an exchange with his wife:
His friends never talked about sex, or health. They never had. Or problems – they didn’t really talk about their problems.Other people didn’t really get it. Especially women. Grown men getting together like that, as if it was weird or unnatural. Or a bit silly.- Are you meeting the lads tonight?- I’m not answering, if you’re going to sneer like that.- Like what?- The lads.She even asked him once, when he was putting his shoes on.- What use are they?- What?- The lads, she’d said. – Your friends.- What about them?- Why are they your friends?- I’m not answering that.- Don’t be so touchy, she said. – I’m curious.- Well, stay curious.- I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.- Why do I have to defend myself?- You don’t.- I have to explain why my friends are my friends. Why the fuck should I?- Don’t, if you don’t want to.- I never ask you about your friends, he said.- I know, she said. – You don’t even know their names.- I do.She smiled.- I do, he insisted. There’s Mary and—- Stop, she said. – Listen. I suppose what I’m wondering is. What do you talk about?He looked at her.- Football, he said.He knew she’d hate that answer.- Is that all?- No.- What else? she said. – Help me here.He didn’t know what else to give her. He didn’t know how to explain it. How what they talked about wasn’t important. How they could sit and say nothing much, for most of the night. And he’d still come home feeling great. Appreciated.
It’s wonderful how this exchange skirts so close to a genuine argument and yet stays within the realm of the comic, of the satirical. It also manages to finish on a point of poignancy that wraps it all together, to leave the reader – at least this reader – relating to precisely what Donal is talking about in that last paragraph. The mysteries of male friendship.
There are other moments like this in the collection, subtle recognitions of what it’s like being male, the small toils involved in being a decent men. A couple of the stories deal with household pets and the emotional strain it can put on a father when they die. The opening tale, “Recuperation,” has a man burying his children’s dead pets, pets he didn’t even want. The story “Animal” blows this idea out even further, becoming a lament about mortality and a father’s obligation to deal with both the physical and emotional consequences of dead pets.
In the end, Bullfighting is exactly the kind of work we’ve come to expect from Roddy Doyle: funny and sad, brilliant in the way it balances small details with large concerns, and infinitely, compulsively readable. I strongly recommend it – for men and women alike.