Roddy Doyle’s Bullfighting is a collection of short stories that portrays a contemporary Ireland with touching, dialogue-heavy realism. This is the second collection of stories from Doyle, who has also written nine novels. The stories here are largely focused on aging men who are coping with the loss of family, the breakdown of the body and the disintegration of marriages.

As moribund as the collection sounds, each story is imparted with brilliant moments of joy—or at least an understanding by the characters about the general malaise of their lives. Doyle’s characters express gratitude for small moments of happiness, however insipid—or temporary—they may seem.

In “Ash,” Kevin is struggling to understand why his wife repeatedly shows up at the house after saying she is leaving him. He spends a week trying to figure out if his marriage is really ending, largely in council with his brother, mostly via text message. One morning Kevin calls the family down to see the eruption of the Icelandic volcano on the news. As they watch, his daughter asks him what ash is. Kevin realizes that she couldn’t have any concept of ash (the burners are electric, the fireplace is gas, there is no devout Catholicism in the schools anymore). As he explains ash as best he can to her, Kevin and his wife smile at one another. It is the first warm moment between the two in a long time, and a good example of Doyle’s style, in which a moment of beauty, nearly inexpressible in its simplicity, arises and overwhelms a mundane reality.

Bullfighting is a contemporary collection, touching on the 2010 volcano, the current recession and modern forms of communication. Still, the characters are timeless Irishmen, adrift in a subtly modern world. The use of the modern in this type of realism can often be either jarring or absent; in Bullfighting, Doyle grounds the stories in the present while remaining faithful to the classical realism he so adeptly employs. With this collection, Doyle is operating in the same mode as Chekhov and Raymond Carver—and with comparable mastery.

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