Review: Ten tales of Dubliners
The Dubliner Roddy Doyle often depicts the lives of ordinary working-class Irishmen who enjoy drinking a pint—or two, or more—in his stories. In his last novel, Love, two old friends traded stories and memories over several drinks in the pubs of Dublin. But Doyle, who won the Booker Prize in 1993 for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, is a serious bloke whose Love was really about love and friendship, as well as the love of drink.
In his latest book, a 10-story collection called Life Without Children, Doyle tells stories of catastrophes—unemployment, a deadly storm and Covid-19—and their socioeconomic and psychological fallout on Irish families. Four of his stories were originally published in The New Yorker or The Irish Times; and of the eight stories that take place during Covid-19, six are new.
Each external natural or economic catastrophe creates an internal conflict within Doyle’s characters that is classical and sometimes Shakespearean.
Some of Doyle’s “childrenless” characters are in their 60s and lament the loss of their grown children after they have gone off on their own. Yet some of those grown children have returned to live at home, which can induce more familial closeness and sometimes more lamenting. Other characters are younger; some are married; and often, as the title says, they are literally without children.
Unnamed characters lend a sense of the “everyman” to a few stories. Doyle’s working class protagonists and his minor characters often use strong language—occasionally referring to or quoting Shakespeare, Yeats and Melville—to reveal character and provide comic effect.
Most of Doyle’s stories take place in and around Dublin, with the exception of the best piece and title story, “Life Without Children,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker. In it, Alan, “a sixty-two-year-old bachelor with a wife” on a work trip, sits in a pub in Gateshead reminiscing while his wife Sinéad is back home in Dublin. Once the busy father of four, Alan feels unneeded now that his kids are grown up and gone, and he considers leaving his wife. There, sitting in the pub, Alan observes that “social distancing” is a phrase everyone understands in Ireland but not in England, where the pubs are crowded.
He watches a stag party of 30 drunk men from Belfast “sweating, coughing, wheezing” and “barking, whacking one another.” He considers joining them, but he tells himself it is “going to end in tears” and “in blood.” Instead, he walks to Newcastle, all the while doubting the wisdom of people gathering in crowds, where he comes across women at a hen party. Alan tries to convince himself that it is so cold that no virus could get across the sea. He begins to think that his own “doubts” and “dread” are a virus that he has been carrying for years; immediately and mistakenly, he dismisses his metaphor as “sentimental, self-pitying drivel.”
The other Covid stories are very good, especially “The Five Lamps,” “Masks” and “Gone.” In “The Five Lamps,” a man who has come to believe “he’s no good at living” drives to the outskirts of Dublin during the lockdown. He walks into town looking for his missing son, who left home at 17 and has been gone for four years. In “Masks,” a man in his 60s walks along the Dublin coast near Bull Island as he ruminates about his past, regarding the discarded masks he finds as vile things akin to garbage; yet he collects and wears them.
“The Curfew,” a tale about a storm in 2017, is almost as good as the title story. When tropical storm Ophelia approaches Dublin, the unnamed protagonist feels safe and quotes “King Lear,” expecting the winds to blow and crack their cheeks. Like the storm in “King Lear,” this tempest reflects the turmoil within this old Irish father about his four children. He has been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, which the doctor calls “widow’s block.” The doctor advises him to do nothing for now and “don’t Google.” Then, paraphrasing Lear to Kent, he warns, “That way lies madness.”
Doyle’s working class protagonists and his minor characters often use strong language to reveal character and provide comic effect.
Absent any storm or the latest plague, times were already tough for Sam and Emer, the main characters in “Box Sets,” which appeared in The New Yorker aboutfive years before the onset of Covid-19. They try to convince themselves to believe the “optimism on the radio” about the economy. Although Emer is still working, Sam has been jobless for three months. He has been watching a lot of television, especially in pubs. He and Emer vow to tighten their belts and renegotiate the house mortgage if they have to. Maybe even drink less? “No way,” they joke.
But their marriage is strained and inert. Sam does not want to do much of anything. When Emer reminds him that they are going to a friend’s house, he replies, “I’d prefer not to,” a truncated line from Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a story in which Bartleby refuses to do much of anything, including leave. Later in Doyle’s story, the couple fights. He throws a mug, breaking it, and leaves. Soon he returns, expecting everything to be all right and contemplates a “future measured in box sets” of 30 years of television programs. One gets the idea that, like Bartleby, Sam would prefer to make no changes in his and Emer’s life at all.
Each external natural or economic catastrophe creates an internal conflict within Doyle’s characters that is classical and sometimes Shakespearean. The ways in which the fictional characters respond, individually or as part of a family, range from pessimism to optimism and from listlessness to vitality—or somewhere in between. As in real life, they are as varied as the stars in the heavens.