I picked up Roddy Doyle’s The Deportees at San Francisco’s recent MLA convention because one of the stories had been published in the same edition of McSweeney’s as a story of mine, and I’d been curious about Doyle ever since (though I hadn’t read any more of his work until now). And while some stories, unavoidably, were better than others, I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed.
First of all, one of the book’s advantages is that the stories are so clearly centered on a unified theme: the recent influx of foreigners into Irish society. The project began as an observation that, sometime in the nineties, Ireland had radically changed.
What had previously been an economically downtrodden afterthought of Europe, a place where “more people left …than were born [there]”, and which attracted only scattered immigrants, many of whom for questionable purposes, had become “one of the wealthiest countries in Europe”, full of romanticized (and romanticizing) immigrants who’d watched Riverdance, seen photos of the pretty hills, and come up to see what the fuss was about. Doyle’s new Ireland is a place of cultural and racial tensions where “one out of every ten people living in Ireland wasn’t born [there]”. So Doyle started with a simple premise: write stories that all begin when someone who was born in Ireland meets someone who wasn’t, and then watch the cultures clash and realign.
There are several variations on this theme. In “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner”, a hard-working Irish father confronts his own latent racism when his daughter brings home a Nigerian boyfriend. In “57% Irish”, a scientist devises a governmental test to quantifiably measure something as indefinably innate as Irish nationalism. In “I Understand”, an illegal Polish immigrant deals with being shaken down and exploited by underground drug dealers who threaten to report him to the authorities. The stories range widely in terms of tone and quality, but are best when the characters confront the limitations of their own capabilities to understand—although they occasionally suffer from Doyle’s desire to force them into tolerance. But almost all interactions are at least somewhat combustible and thought-provoking.
The most useful part of the book, from a craft study perspective, comes from the context under which these stories were first written. Although McSweeney’s and other journals later reprinted them in their entirety, each work originally appeared as 800 word monthly installments in Metro Eireann, a Dublin periodical. Doyle wrote many of the stories on the fly, and claims to have frequently not known how a story would end even as previous installments were being published. This working without a net creates stories that are occasionally uneven; in Doyle’s words “characters [sometimes] disappear, because I forgot about them. Questions are asked and, sometimes, not quite answered.” There are also occasionally redundant descriptions, as Doyle takes a minute at the beginning of a new installment to recap past episodes. This format also, however, creates a fantastic tutorial on the use of tension. The artistic constraints of Doyle’s format force him to create a moment of crisis or reversal every 800 words (at most), and this crisis has to be striking enough to make readers willing to come back after waiting a month. When read together, the installments become excellent lessons in how to tell a lengthy, unified story while simultaneously compelling a reader to wonder what will happen next on a moment-by-moment basis. In a way, this is story-telling stripped to the bones. Doyle can rely on no lengthy descriptions, no interior monologues, and no dawdling exposition—each of these take up space, and space is at a premium. So he relies only on swift characterization and compelling scenes—and the results are often as entertaining as a brisk, lively stage play.
For the curious, the story published in what I’ve playfully come to think of as “my” issue of McSweeney’s was “New Boy”. I liked it well enough when I first read it, but after reading The Deportees I’d rank “New Boy” near the bottom of my favorite stories from the collection. That’s a mild indictment of the story, of course, but I hope it’s more of an endorsement of the book.