For two decades now, Doyle has been sending out fictional dispatches about the state of Irelandor at least Dublin. He was thrust into prominence in 1986 with The Commitments, later made into a scruffy, well-received movie by the director Alan Parker.
One of the more memorable lines from the book had one character, a working class Dublin musician performing in a soul band, calling the Irish the niggers of Europe. In a short but useful foreword to The Deportees, Doyle says that given Irelands profound economic, ethnic and racial changes, he would not even think to use that line today. The line, Doyle admits, would make no sense.
The stories in The Deportees first appeared in Metro Eireann, a weekly Irish newspaper edited by Nigerian journalists.
The first thing readers need to know is that Doyles stories follow strict conventions. They unfold in 800-word chapters, each with a Dickensian, cliff-hanger ending. This is fairly restrictive, so readers should not pick up this book expecting the type of raw complexity Doyle exhibited in his Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments, The Van, The Snapper), or his more recent forays into historical fiction (A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing).
Yes, the stories are plotted very tightly, and some characters (particularly several of the noble new immigrants to Ireland) seem shallow or stereotypical. Still, there is much to praise in The Deportees. The stories often have the feel of a sharp sitcom or short film screenplay.
Doyles humor, meanwhile, is in top form, even in the opening story, Guess Whos Coming to Dinner. The plot is hardly inventiveit basically updates the Hepburn-Tracy moviebut the execution, coupled with the spectacle of the storys traditional Dublin Da being harried by his reflexively progressive daughters, more than makes up for the shortcomings.
The title story, meanwhile, revisits the main character of The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte. He is more or less happily married now, yet is suddenly itching to round up a band again. This time, though, it will not be a bunch of working-class Dubs but instead a multicultural group meant to reflect the New Irish. The story ends with a scene of global music ecstasy, seemingly meant to drown out a menacing racist who has been threatening Jimmy. Again, the specific devices Doyle uses to execute the story could be stronger, but the effect is powerful. As with many stories in this collection, the whole of The Deportees generally is stronger than the sum of its parts.
Bear in mind, as with much of Doyles work, American readers should be prepared to slog through a good many Dublinisms, from howyeha to hoor to cop on.
One of the books stronger stories, which transcends Doyles stated interest in the new Irish melting pot, is New Boy, which unfolds in the reliably compelling setting of the classroom and schoolyard. On his first day in class, the young black immigrant Joseph is harassed by a classmate (named Christian, no less). The bully goes so far as to call the boy Live-Aid, a reference to the African relief concert organized by Irishman Bob Geldof. Efforts by the teacher to shield young Joseph naturally only make things worse. But by the end, for better or worse, boys will be boys. Christian and Joseph realize that rather than attack each other (like the boys in Lord of the Flies), they can instead focus their collective energy on the bumbling woman in the front of the room. In this sense, the differences arising from national origin seem less significant when compared to the much more profound sense of alienation that springs from the human conditioneven when you are a meek (or snotty) 11-year-old boy.
As Doyle and by now countless other observers have noted, Ireland has undergone a radical transformation in the past 20 years. It will take decades to assess the ramifications authoritatively. This most distressful country is peaceful and prosperous. This once devoutly Catholic nation is increasingly secular. This land of cead mile failte (a thousand welcomes), which has sent its children abroad for centuries, is now asking indelicate questions about foreigners.
The new Ireland will certainly soon inspire Joycean works of epic fiction. Until then, you can turn to Roddy Doyle for hilarious, acidic observations about 21st-century Ireland.