“You know what you are getting” – Life Without Children by Roddy Doyle

IMG_20Oct2021at130627If Jonathan Franzen’s great subject could be said to be family, then Roddy Doyle’s is marriage. A great many of the stories in his new collection centre on what happens between a man and wife as they go about this business of life. The kink this time out is that the majority of these stories deal with the effect of the Covid pandemic.

And so there are marriages you might say were in trouble (‘Box Sets’), relationships ending as a result of the threat of lockdown confinement (‘Gone’), husbands considering walking out on it all and disappearing into the night (‘Life Without Children’), husbands worrying about plans to have them assassinated (‘The Charger’) and (drunken) husbands raging at not being invited to funerals (‘The Funeral’). In ‘Worms’, you have a husband and wife sharing the various ear worms that accompany small, repeated habits like shaving or bringing the shopping in (and the friction that comes when the husband doesn’t entirely believe the authenticity of his wife’s ear worms).

In that respect, you know what you are getting from Life Without Children. It’s a good book of Roddy Doyle short stories. The best stories contained herein, though, the ones that stop you in your tracks and have you longing slightly for more in this direction are the stories that deviate: ‘Masks’, for example, about a bit of an angry loonbag performing what comes to be thought of as a performance art piece in the middle of the park; ‘Nurse’ (about a nurse, as you’d expect); and, perhaps most particularly, ‘The Five Lamps’ which closes out the book, which is about a father searching for his son, possibly four years too late, through the streets of Dublin during the lockdown. There’s a new sense of detail to that last story which reminded this reader of Doyle’s denser and more troubling books (see the trilogy that comprises The Last Roundup). We would have been happy to spend a novel length period in the company of the father in that one.

As ever, it’s Doyle’s way with a detail or an observation that elevates the stories. Here is one of the characters in ‘Gone’, for example, musing on the world:

“It’s sad. It is, in a way – in lots of ways. It’s definitely sad. But everything’s sad these days, I suppose. And I have to admit. I do have to admit – personally. I’m happy.”

And, you know, it wouldn’t be Roddy Doyle without a fair few laugh out loud moments, whether you’re laughing at a turn of phrase or something sour and tree between a husband and wife or just a straightforward description of something that tickles you. Here he is, in ‘Masks’, talking about (you guessed it) masks:

“The masks, though – they’re diseased, vile. They’re private. They’re like underwear on the footpath, soiled and wet – or sanitary towels. He’s walking through people who just drop their finished face masks on the ground.”

If you were to push us and say, how does it stand up to his best short story collections (Bullfighting remains our personal favourite), we’d say it stands up pretty damn well, thank you for asking.

Any Cop?: It provided us with amusement, entertainment, distraction and, you know, thoughtful stuff to chew on so we’d say if you’re a fan of Roddy Doyle and a fan of the old short story, you could do a lot worse than treat yourself to Life Without Children

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