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Bullfighting

By Roddy Doyle

Vintage Canada, 214 pages, $22

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I was startled to realize, while reading Bullfighting, that Roddy Doyle has been a significant literary figure for almost a quarter-century now. In 2012, it will be 25 years since he published The Commitments, a defining modern-Ireland novel and a book that, thanks to a fine film version, made him very famous indeed.

Not that Roddy Doyle needed a movie version of a book to rescue him from some sort of literary obscurity. From the start, he has been that rare figure (especially in modern Irish writing), a serious-minded, but entertaining and populist writer. The first phase of Doyle's literary life climaxed in 1993 when his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize. The Barrytown trilogy ( The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van) made him renowned, but the Booker's stamp of approval gave him a status relevant to those who underappreciated the serious heft of the earlier books.

Since then, his work has gone in other directions. He wrote the extraordinary, tough-minded TV miniseries Family, a kind of vicious, bleak counterpoint to the cheerfulness of the Barrytown trilogy. He wrote a new trilogy of novels, the Last Roundup, which began with A Star Called Henry (1999) and was completed last year with the publication of The Dead Republic. The trilogy chronicled the life and magical times (there are strong elements of what must be loosely called magic realism in the series) of Henry Smart, a Dublin man who fought for Irish independence from Britain, had outstanding adventures in the United States and eventually returned to a much-changed and challenging Ireland.

For readers who missed Doyle's vivid evocation of working-class Dublin life in the early works, the good news is that he began writing short stories, almost all anchored in contemporary Dublin. And in Bullfighting we find him still exemplary at capturing the rhythms of ordinary life and speech in his native city. This is not, however, the Dublin of The Commitments or The Snapper. This is the Dublin of now: beleaguered in a deep recession, bewildered and disappointed after the evaporation of the Celtic Tiger economy and resolutely loyal to its old ways.

Almost every one of the fine, poignant and subtly humorous stories (many appeared first in The New Yorker) in Bullfighting is about a middle-aged man. And yet, even with that narrow focus, it is probably the finest collection of Irish short stories since James Joyce's Dubliners. The delicacy of emotion is here, the spare but elegant writing, the heartbreak and humour. Just as much of Dubliners dwelt on Dublin men feeling the frustrations of a limited existence, facing the truth about life and death and, sometimes, finding an epiphany about happiness, so do Doyle's men walk the same streets, aching with the same hurts.

There are secrets in abundance in these stories: regrets, illnesses, longings and, often, close-held joy. The opening story, Recuperation, is a portrait of a man, Hanahoe, obliged to get exercise after an illness, who traipses daily through the north Dublin suburbs, wondering when his life became empty: "It's depressing, a life, laid out like that. Mass, driving the kids to football, or dancing. The pint on Friday. The sex on Sunday. Pay on Thursday. The shop on Saturday. Leave the house at the same time, park in the same spot. The loyalty card. The bags. The routine. One day he knew: he hated it." And then, in a twist that is so subtle it barely registers, Hanahoe finds his life is not so empty after all.

The men in these stories face life after their teenage children leave home, their jobs are gone or diminished and their marriages need mending. The main character in Funerals, his sales job slipping away, begins a routine of taking his elderly parents to funerals here, there and everywhere. He becomes a boy again, on a day's outing with his parents, looking forward to the fish and chips and the ice cream on the journey home. These men don't sleep well, and, at the pub, joke with one another about their memories of the recession before the last recession.

In the title story, Bullfighting, the most elaborate in the collection, a middle-aged man adheres rigidly to a tradition of meeting his friends from childhood once a week at the pub, to talk about nothing much, sometimes sitting in companionable, restorative silence. When they take a trip together to Spain, their routine is the same as at home. The narrator dreads the future, life after his children no longer needs him. In Spain, a glimpse of a bull - a clear objective correlative in the story - provides an epiphany. Like all the stories in this great collection, it is about aging, yearning and learning. There's laugher and sadness, provided by a writer at his peak, teasing meaning out of the ordinary with exquisite skill and delicacy.

Dublin-raised John Doyle, no relation to Roddy, is the television critic for The Globe and Mail and the author of The World is a Ball: The Joy, Madness & Meaning of Soccer.

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