Bullfighting, by Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape, RRP£12.99, 214 pages
City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry, Jonathan Cape, RRP£12.99, 278 pages
Long Time, No See, by Dermot Healy, Faber & Faber, RRP£12.99, 310 pages
Ireland is a small island (our population is about the same as Manchester and its hinterland) and so you’d think that the stories and novels our writers are currently publishing would have much in common with one another. As the three books here under review amply demonstrate, however, contemporary Irish fiction is incredibly diverse and not amenable to generalisation.
Bullfighting, the new short story collection from acclaimed novelist and dramatist Roddy Doyle, has one subject: the Dublin working-class northside male, born in the 1950s and now entering early middle age. It should be a time of contentment: the mortgage is paid, the children reared, and the marriage is intact.
Unfortunately, because now he has free time, Doyle’s man is thinking about everything and, as he does, talking about it in his head. These inner word streams form the core of every story. Doyle’s replication (or transcription) of this thought talk is excellent and he is particularly good at illuminating the way masculine jaunty speech masks masculine melancholy.
And melancholy’s the word because the discovery made by every bloke here is that, though he’s often been a good enough father, there’s precious little else to celebrate.
Worse, he doesn’t actually understand either his own choices or the actions of those around him. Everything is largely unfathomable, especially women. But bafflement does not catalyse capitulation. Like Sisyphus, he’ll go on, pushing his rock uphill and trying to make sense of it all, because that’s what he does, he pushes on.
Men who drive white vans are not generally much written about and when they do appear in fiction it’s their brutish side that’s usually accented. It’s a pleasure to encounter them as stoics who feel, think and endure.
Fiction’s primary duty is to let us see the world through the eyes of characters outside our remit, which in turn makes us better human beings. Bullfighting is that rarity – a work that actually does this for once, and I hazard no reader of these stories will ever look again at a certain type of man without experiencing a throb of sympathy.
Kevin Barry’s dystopian debut novel City of Bohane is set in the future in the imaginary city of Bohane on Ireland’s west coast. Criminals dominate Bohane and Irish readers will recognise similarities with the real city of Limerick.
This is the set-up. Bohane’s pre-eminent gang, the Hartnett Fancy, is being challenged for control of the whorehouses and the drugs trade by hoi polloi. The Fancy also has internal problems. Its boss, the Long Fella, is being challenged by ambitious lieutenants within his organisation, plus the previous leader of the Fancy, whom he deposed years earlier, has just returned to the metropolis for mysterious reasons of his own.
City of Bohane describes what happens as these parties collide: it’s hilarious and visceral and it ends (inevitably) with the vanquishing of the Long Fella and the coronation of a new leader, Jenni Ching. Even at this moment of triumph, however, she’s already searching “the eyes of her own ranks for that yellow light, ambition’s pale gleam”, for she knows that just as she’s deposed the Long Fella one day one of her underlings will depose her.
What Barry says about the transience of human affairs and the corrosive effects of power gives the novel its moral ballast, but what makes it art is its language.
To tell his story he mashes Elizabethan and Regency English, American gang English and Hiberno-English, hip-hop English and film noir English, and a lot of other kinds of English into a new language perfectly tailored to his purposes. It’s an extraordinary achievement and I don’t doubt this novel (which though written in words feels in texture and shape like a graphic novel to me) will deservedly win him many plaudits. I relished it.
The narrator of Dermot Healy’s novel Long Time, No See is Mr Psyche. A troubled adolescent, Psyche lives in a modest house on the Irish Atlantic coast with his mother (a nurse) and his father (a builder), and as he awaits the results of his Leaving Cert (the Irish equivalent of A-levels) he has a variety of adventures, mostly connected to two elderly neighbours, men for whom he, his family and the community feel a duty of care.
The characters populating this novel are hard-working, Catholic, frugal, Irish people with quiet, domestic ambitions. Their inner lives, however, belying appearances, are rich and incredible: in other words, the ordinary, when you look carefully enough, are actually extraordinary. It’s the same argument that Mrs Gaskell makes in Cranford.
But besides celebrating ordinary folk Healy also wants to tell us something about the Irish that I, at least, have not seen expressed in Irish fiction before.
The gift for talk has traditionally been connected to colonisation: once the English took all the land, the argument goes, we’d nothing else left but their language with which we could excel.
All Healy’s characters talk brilliantly and the whole novel is built out of their talk. Like Doyle, Healy is a brilliant transcriber of speech. However, Healy also shows how the function of our talk is not to impress (though it does) but to shield the bruised inner psyche from the scrutiny of others. In other words, he sees our talent for talk in psychoanalytical rather than historical terms. This is a genuinely new idea contained in a genuinely moving novel and how often can you say a book made you think and feel?
Carlo Gébler is an author and writer-in-residence in HMP Maghaberry. His novel, ‘The Dead Eight’, is published in May (New Island)