AAs a writer who has documented Ireland’s financial and social roller coasters since the late 1980s, it is fitting that Roddy Doyle is among the first to record the effects of the current pandemic, lockdown and loss. . The 10 Life Without Children Stories, mostly written in the past year, all do this. But Doyle is an author best known for his easy-going dialogue, noisy big families, and ads – and there have been very few of them. How will he deal with the sudden lack of conversation and companionship that has characterized these days? Will there be Zoom calls?
There is one – a frustrating connection with a beloved wife on an iPad awkwardly propped up in her hospital bed. It’s one of many images that would have seemed absurd two years ago, but are now uncomfortably familiar: abandoned surgical masks stuck to wet sidewalks; the ânew languageâ of radio statistics; “the zip on a body bag”. In this strange new world, âSocial distancing is a phrase that everyone understands. It’s like gender fluidity and sustainable development. They use the words as if they had been translated from Irish, in the air since before the English invasion. But what feels most familiar to me is the sense of absence that fills every story, of voices and bodies and people we miss.
The children in the title are mostly adults: they’ve grown up, left home, and moved on. In the title story, Alan walks around Newcastle struggling with the feeling that “he was no longer needed, needed in the way that had defined him, for himself, for so long”. In The Charger, Michael makes up funny stories about his own childhood to tell his daughters, to bury the truth about neglect and abuse. In The Five Lamps, a father walks the cold streets of Dublin, looking for the son he has dropped. Like many characters, he collects stories to give to the person he loves – if only they have the chance to meet again.
Doyle wrote about men’s mental health long before it was called that, and here he tackles topics like dismissal, abuse, depression, bereavement, and aging with his usual tenderness and humor. For Sam in Box Sets, “something had broken, or sagged, a few weeks after being released.” In The Charger, “Mick knew a boy who had definitely committed suicide and another who probably did – his car had hit a wall.” Doyle shows us men tired, hurt, or bewildered by this turn of events, wandering around strange cities in search of things they’ll never find or making up great stories so they don’t have to face the truth. And the Covid is not helping. âThe fragility of the world is the biggest shock,â Mick thinks. âHe didn’t think the last, biggest recession was anything like this. It was bad but – damn it – he could go have a pint.
There are also laughs, of course, many of which are prompted by some sort of gravedigger humor. Passing in front of women in hen in Newcastle, all wearing naughty banners, Alan considers their future: âThe droplets they inhale tonight, they will be dead in a few days. Here lies Tracey. She wanted cock.“
There are also happy endings. The couple who fall in love again during confinement. The father who arranges things with his child. The beloved who does not die – not this time. Usually these are rooted in moments of connection, in finding new ways to talk to each other, after everything that has happened. There is a dialogue, after all. Even in the event of a pandemic.