All of the stories concern themselves with men in their forties and fifties, all of whom are struggling to understand their place in a rapidly changing world.
In some cases, as in ‘Animals’, George is struggling to cope with the fact that his kids are now fully grown, thus leaching his life of the meaning of being a parent. In ‘Funerals’, a middle-aged man grasping after meaning in his life ferries his aged parents to funerals, only to discover that they - or the mother, at least - is regressing to childhood. In some of the stories, such as ‘The Photograph’, a man ponders on the way in which communication with his wife has dwindled away to be replaced by virtual silence.
These three variations on the theme of quietly observed mid-life crises are repeated throughout. That’s not to say that the collection is necessarily repetitive - personally, and despite the surface similarities, I found most of the stories intriguing in their own right, and some of them very moving.
The backdrop to most of the stories is Ireland’s economic downturn, which chimes with the sense of ‘redundancy’ most of the men seem to experience. In some of the stories, such as ‘Animals’, Doyle makes it explicit that the main character, George, is unemployed as a result of the downturn. In other places, he harks back to a previous generation that also experienced recession and austerity.
While Doyle’s characters often offer flashes of bitterness at their ‘redundancy’ as men, now that their children are reared, there’s very little by way of anger or rage. Most of the characters appear to be aiming, consciously or otherwise, for an acceptance of their status, as it’s easier to accept the status quo than it is to gird their loins for a battle that might rejuvenate their lives, or might shatter them entirely.
‘Blood’ is a story that is the exception to this rule; in fact, it’s an exception to most of the stories in the collection. In ‘Blood’, the male character develops a sudden compulsion to eat raw meat, and to drink blood. While he initially attempts to rationalise his desire as a biological manifestation of his creeping middle-age and growing appreciation of his being surplus to requirements (the character has had a vasectomy), all logic goes out the window when he finds himself biting the head off one of “the next-door neighbours’ recession hens”:
“There were three of them, scrabbling around in the garden. He hated them, the whole idea of them. The world economy wobbled and the middle classes immediately started growing their own spuds and carrots, buying their own chickens, and denying they had property portfolios in Eastern Europe. And they stopped talking to him because he’d become the enemy, and evil, because he worked in a bank. The shiftless bitch next door could pretend she was busy all day looking after the hens. Well, she’d have one less to look after because he was over the wall.”The language used here - ‘hated’, ‘evil’, ‘enemy’, ‘shiftless bitch’ - is notably stronger than elsewhere in the collection, while the story itself has a quality of the absurd (“He wasn’t a vampire or a werewolf.”) that borders on fantasy, a quality that is in marked contrast to the muted realism of the other stories. Amid the quiet desperation and acceptance of the other stories, if feels as if Doyle is lashing out at Ireland’s quiescent acceptance of the new status quo.
In terms of style, Doyle’s language here is very stark, very direct, and almost harks back to the early days of the ‘Barrytown Trilogy’. Despite the conversational tone of the stories, which are for the most part delivered as internal monologues, Doyle employs a style that is stark, precise and unambiguous. There are very few poetic flourishes, which would have been incongruous given that the characters are for the most part working-class Dubliners.
By the same token, the vernacular Doyle employs when writing dialogue has a kind of brusque lyricism to it, especially in the title story, in which four men, drinking buddies, decide to take a holiday in the south of Spain. From ‘Bullfighting’, pg 189:
- Is that a bruise?The men here are unapologetically urban, reliably stolid and relatively inarticulate when it comes to expressing emotion. That said, and despite the unadorned style, there’s no mistaking Doyle’s affection for his characters. There is a sense that he is celebrating their ability to endure despite their circumstances, to absorb the slings and arrows without complaint.
- Varicose vein.
- You can show it to whatever young one you pick up tonight in town.
- I’ll tell yeh. Show a bird your varicose veins and she’ll be on you like a fuckin’ barnacle.
In fact, as the collection progresses, there’s a real sense that what Doyle is celebrating is the quality of forbearance and fortitude summed up by the Beckettian mantra of ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’. Few of the characters are educated enough, or self-aware, to be conscious of this philosophy, but it does permeate the collection.
These are not men of the conventional literary mid-life crisis, who are lampooned for their obsession with younger women and fast cars. Neither are they privy to the epiphanies common in the Irish short story. They may glimpse an epiphany, as the unnamed character does at the end of ‘The Joke’, but it’s rare that they act upon it.
In the same way as THE COMMITMENTS was considered a radical departure in the way it gave contemporary working-class Dubliners a literary voice in their own vernacular, BULLFIGHTING does the same for the invisible demographic of plodding male survivors who carry on with their lives, uncomplaining.
Overall, and as someone who isn’t as a rule drawn to the short story form, I thoroughly enjoyed BULLFIGHTING. Perhaps it’s the fact that the repetition of the theme made the collection seem like an experimental novel, but that’s to err on the whimsical side. There really isn’t a bum note in the entire collection. Even ‘Blood’, which could very easily have gone off the rails, is a beautifully modulated piece.
Ultimately, Doyle has presented us with a collection of stories that really do run the emotional gamut from A-Z. There were times when I found myself grinning wryly, other times when I was laughing aloud, and more than once I was genuinely moved to tears. Most important of all, perhaps, I was always in that very delightful place between envy and admiration of a writer who is obviously in total control of all his gifts. - Declan Burke