Black- and- white tales from the new Ire­land

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lau­rie Clancy

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’’.

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