Sometimes writers have to get back to basics. In "The Circus Animals' Desertion," W.B. Yeats, unable to perform the dazzling high-wire poetics that had won him a Nobel Prize, talked of needing to "lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."
Now, the short story, as a literary genre, is not exactly a "rag and bone shop," but it is, generally speaking, a more modest premise than the intellectual penthouse the novel can be. Contemporary Irish writer Roddy Doyle spent much of the past dozen years producing an ambitious historical trilogy titled "The Last Roundup." While those books didn't fall off the wire, they did have worrying wobbles, especially the third installment, "The Dead Republic," which I reviewed in these pages last year.
In 2006, Doyle took a break from the trilogy to publish "Paula Spencer," which was a follow-up, a decade later, to one of his best fictions: "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors." I felt "Paula Spencer" to be far more engaging than the Roundup books, and I feel the same way about this new story collection, "Bullfighting." Yes, Doyle has stretched himself as a writer, but he still does the contemporary urban fiction that put him -- and large swaths of Dublin -- on the literary map better than anything else.
A kind of composite central character emerges in the course of these 13 stories (many of which have appeared in the New Yorker). He is a middle-aged Dubliner who can't "really imagine life before the children" or marriage. Though he might take an occasional holiday from responsibility (such as the boys' week in Spain detailed in the title story), he is typically conscientious to a comical fault: "George changed mobile phones, not because he really wanted to, but because he knew the boxes would come in handy -- it was always wise to have a coffin ready for the next bird or fish."
And it's not just miniature coffins that this rumpled hero has to contend with. In the standout story, "Funerals," the protagonist becomes addicted to attending last rites with his aged parents, as long as the service is not too close to home. If it were, "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."
To be sure, not every story in the collection has the subtle patterning and poignant surprise of "Funerals," but in terms of humor, insight and humanity, there are no duds in this baker's dozen.
- Robert Cremins, the author of "A Sort of Homecoming," teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.