Black- and- white tales from the new Ireland
RODDY Doyle’s first collection of short stories will come as quite a shock to those of us who were brought up to think of Ireland in terms of James Joyce’s grim, repressed Dubliners . The world of The Deportees is light years from that and reflects the remarkable changes that have taken place in Ireland during the past two decades or so. As Doyle puts it in his foreword, ‘‘ some time in the mid-’ 90s I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one’’. Though his style has not changed, the material is unrecognisable from previous books.
Specifically, the stories deal with racism and with confrontation between black and white people, unthinkable in Joyce’s day because there were so few black people in Ireland. The opening, and weakest, story, Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner? , recalls, consciously or not, the 1967 Stanley Kramer film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? , about a young white woman who brings Sidney Poitier home and introduces him as her fiance to a horrified Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, playing her parents.
As critics pointed out at the time, most parents would be more than happy with a fiance who had a PhD, a well- paid job and looked like a young Poitier, but making a mainstream liberal film was probably pretty difficult in the US, even in 1967.
Forty years later the idea of Larry Linnane, a normally tolerant man, being disturbed when his daughter Stephanie brings home a black man, an accountant from Nigeria, is hard to stomach, especially as the couple are just friends.
The title, which is also the name of the longest story in the collection, is a reprise of Doyle’s most famous novel, The Commitments . Jimmy Rabbitte decides to form another band, but this time none of the members are white and instead of soul music they specialise in the songs of Woody Guthrie. Even the name of the band, the Deportees, suggests how multicultural Dublin and Ireland have become.
Other stories in the collection are more original and more moving. New Boy concerns a nine- year- old African refugee and his successful attempts to cope with his first day at school. 57% Irish cleverly satirises notions of Irishness by having a PhD student devise a means of measuring the degree of people’s nationalism by assessing their response to Robbie Keane’s goal against Germany in the 2002 World Cup, the band Riverdance and Danny Boy . It should be compulsory reading for Australian politicians.
Equally funny is Black Hoodie , in which the narrator, his Nigerian girlfriend and another boy set up a company called Black Hoodie Solutions to shoplift goods.
In the darkest story in the collection, The Pram , a Polish nanny is all too successful in her attempts to terrify her two stuck- up charges: in her own words, to ‘‘ scare them shitless’’. All the stories tackle the issue of racism satirically but in this one the tone borders on tragedy.
Doyle explains in the foreword that the stories were originally written as 800- word episodes for Metro Eireann , a monthly magazine started by two Nigerian journalists and aimed at an immigrant audience.
Doyle has linked the episodes to form the stories in this collection. He seems to have thrived under the discipline, and after more ambitious but less successful novels has returned to his original mode of writing, characterised by liberal amounts of dialogue, edgy humour, the frequent use of colloquial language and a suitable number of expletives.
Or, as he himself describes his writing in typically self- deprecatory fashion, ‘‘ an awful lot of dialogue and an awful lot of gaps, and when in doubt say f . . k’’.