Book Quote:

“It was frightening, though, how little time you got. You only became yourself when you were twenty-three or twenty-four. A few years later, you had an old man’s chest hair. It wasn’t worth it.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (MAY 15, 2011)

The thirteen stories in the collection Bullfighting from Irish author Roddy Doyle examine various aspects of male middle age. Eight of these stories first appeared in New Yorker, and in this volume the post-boom stories collectively offer a wry, bittersweet look at the years past and the years yet to come. We see middle-aged men whose wives have left them, middle-aged men whose children have grown and gone, stale marriages, marriages which have converted lovers into friends, the acceptance of disease and aging, and the ever-looming aspect of mortality. Lest I give the wrong impression, these stories are not depressing–instead through these marvellous stories Doyle argues that middle age brings new experiences and new emotions–just when we thought we’d experienced all that life had to offer.

In “The Photograph,” Martin tallies up the pros and cons of aging:

“Getting older wasn’t bad. The balding suited Martin. Everyone said it. He’d had to change his trouser size from 34 to 36. It had been a bit of a shock, but it was kind of nice wearing loose trousers again, hitching them up when he stood up to go to the jacks, or whatever. He was fooling himself; he knew that. But that was the point—he was fooling himself. He’d put on weight, but he felt a bit thinner.”

As Martin faces his first serious health issue, he recalls the recent death of Noel, a friend from his youth. Martin tries valiantly to make light of his own health problem with mixed success.

In “Funerals,” middle-aged son, Bill starts ferrying his elderly parents around to funerals. What begins as a one-off favour turns into a weekly habit. Bill discovers that his parents actually look forward to funerals and that they view them as outings to be followed by a trip to the chip shop. Instead of feeling burdened by becoming their regular chauffeur, Bill finds himself fascinated by their behaviour and pleasantly comfortable in their company, yet at the same time some sort of seismic shift has occurred in the relationship:?

“He could enjoy their company and listen to them flirting. They weren’t his parents any more; he wasn’t their son. He was a middle-aged man in a car with two people who were a bit older. Once or twice, in a rush that made him hang onto the steering wheel, he was their son and the car was full of himself as a boy and a stupid, awkward young man, hundreds of boys and men, all balled into this one man driving his wife’s Toyota Corolla and trying not to cry.”

Bill isn’t sure why he wants to spend so much time with his parents, but he does know that he’s beginning to feel uncomfortable with his own crowd:

“He stayed clear of the local funerals, the old neighbours. He didn’t want the conversations. What are you up to these days? How many kids is it you have? He didn’t want to talk to men he’d once known who’d lost their jobs so recently they still didn’t understand it. Great, great. Yourself? There’d be too many middle-aged women who used to be girls, ponytailed men he used to play with, a mother he’d fancied–in the coffin. Fat grannies he’d kissed and–the last time he’d gone to one of the local ones–a woman with MS, shaking her way to a seat in the church, the first girl he’d ever had sex with.”

Bill finds his parents child-like, and there’s a comforting sensation to the day trips he takes with them as they attend funeral after funeral. It’s as though Bill is a parent once again–after all his own children are grown and no longer need his care.

If I had to pick one favourite story in this stellar collection, it would be “Animals.” In this particularly poignant story, George, the middle-aged narrator, whose children are now grown and gone, recalls his life as a family man through memories of the animals the family owned. At one point, George tells how he once colluded with the local pet shop, Wacker’s over a lost canary. The canary, Pete, escaped from the cage, and George returns home to find “four hysterical children in the kitchen, long past tears and snot, and a woman outside in the back garden, talking to the hedge.” The woman is George’s wife, Sandra and she’s pretending that the canary is in the hedge:

“–Listen, he said.—I’m going to bring the kids to Wacker’s, to see if Pete flew there. Are you with me?
Sandra looked at him. And he knew: she was falling in love with him, all over again. Or maybe for the first time—he didn’t care. There was a woman in her dressing gown, looking attractively distraught, and she was staring at George like he was your man from ER.

–While I’m doing that, said George,–you phone Wacker’s and tell him the story. You with me?
–It might work.”

Some people measure their lives by the holidays they’ve taken, the jobs they’ve held, or the homes they’ve lived in, but George measures his life as a husband and father through the family pets. Perhaps, under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that middle-aged George finds that his loyal companion is a dog.

The stories include some gentle humour as we hear of one man who brags about picking up 57-old-twins. Another story tells of a couple whose relationship devolves into insult slinging (“Four decades of arse parked inside a piece of string”) in some sort of aging contest. Doyle’s characters, while sketched lightly, are fully realized individuals who cope with the various problems and disappointments of middle age: loneliness, illness, failure, and boredom. These stories examine middle-aged life from all angles, so we also see that middle-age is a mixed bag with consolations in unexpected places. Bullfighting, a rich mature collection from Doyle, shows us a writer at the top of his game, and Doyle’s stories are infused with generosity and wisdom–even as they examine, so excellently, the foibles of human nature.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult (April 28, 2011)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
Wikipedia page on Roddy Doyle
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


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  • The Snapper (1990)
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May 15, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Drift-of-Life, End-of-Life, Ireland, Short Stories, y Award Winning Author

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