Roddy Doyle nailed it. The unspoken aimlessness of middle aged man. His collection of short stories, “Bullfighting,” was frightening in its ordinariness, the drifting banality of a forgotten tribe. What is left after fatherhood, football coaching, and family? Stories that feature invisible men whose children have grown up, work has plateaued, declined, or disappeared, and stories where the highlight of one man’s week is bringing his parents to funerals of distant acquaintances. Exercise is no longer a sign of youth and vitality –walking the seafront in tracksuit bottoms because the doctors told him to. A book of ageing balding men who remember the Eagles lyrics. Wives get a tan and a thong, have a life, a future, and role. But men pause, and look bleakly ahead. Not hopeless, just so little left to hope for. Next stop slippers.
It is never discussed. Men are resilient, solid, and permanent. Middle aged men shouldn’t have feelings, doubts, weaknesses, or introspection. That’s okay for a modern enlightened metro male but not for yesterday’s dynamic dad. But, I see it in the surgery; men whose lives have run out of pizzazz, professionals where the corporate ladder has run out of rungs, or whose identity was wrapped up in a manual job they can no longer manage. Wives look after grandchildren and they just wash the car; where older women’s views matter in fashion and childcare but they are in the way; wives more interested in gardening than sex. Is it any surprise if they chase a half forgotten spark of youth in the pub or elsewhere?
This book is cruel realism rather than creative escapism. Its a modern portrait of the battered male, magnifying the creases, blemishes, and crevasses of half a lifetime. And, he doesn’t ignore the medical implications of aging with mentions of chemotherapy, colonoscopy, Alzheimer’s, and a trip to accident and emergency with acute abdominal pain. I wonder what women might think of it- would they get it? Should it be compulsory reading on the syllabus of that peculiarly female phenomenon- the book club? A bit depressing, perhaps a little culturally specific in its Irish background, but a strong message with few lighter moments. He has captured a forgotten demographic; those men who sit silently in the corners of our waiting rooms squeezed out by anxious women and snuffly children. The problem may not be their tight waistline, borderline cholesterol, or creeping blood pressure. A deeper and more enduring problem – it takes a writer to see it. Forgotten men.
Bullfighting. Roddy Doyle. Jonathan Cape 2011. ISBN 978-0-224-09143-5
Domhnall MacAuley is primary care editor, BMJ