"Bullfighting" by Roddy Doyle (Viking, 214 pages, $25.95)
Roddy Doyle has written novels, screenplays and short stories. He is well-loved for his dry humor, which, in "Bullfighting," seems more often to ignite doubt and light the path to despair than in the novels. Happiness is the theme of many of the 13 stories, the best kind of happiness, happiness with everyday life.
In the title story, the narrator's greatest joy has been in raising his four sons. As they leave home one by one, a great chasm opens up in his life. On holiday and drinking with the lads, he finds himself at a bullfight and watches as the bull is set on fire.
Doyle never tells a reader what to think and so preserves the sense of wonder and interpretation that is pure oxygen to the story form. He follows his characters down streets and through thoughts, stalking happiness, held back by strange memories and insisting on simplicity and beauty, on the delicious luxury of routine.
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"A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman" by Margaret Drabble (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 215 pages, $24)
Written over a period of 50 years, these stories reveal a great deal about a writer best known for her novels. Organized chronologically by publication year, from 1964 to 2000, the 14 stories describe three phases of a woman's life: youth, middle age and old age.
In the first few stories, like "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (written when the author was at Cambridge, but not published until 1968), we see young characters on the outside of social situations looking in. We also see Drabble honing her powerful eye for details and their meanings. A narrator scrutinizes a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in "Hassan's Tower" — every decision, every pause, every trace of emptiness.
In "A Pyrrhic Victory," the smallest gesture reveals gross flaws in a young girl's character, flaws she seems destined never to outgrow. In the midlife stories, the best example is perhaps the collection's title story, in which a working wife and mother, a model of compassion and intelligence, full of sublimated fury, begins to bleed to death while giving a speech at a local school.
Barely concealed rage continues into later life — in "The Merry Widow," the protagonist does not even try to conceal her delight at her husband's death, her sense of victory. The characters in these stories exist in service of ideas; they topple too easily, defeated by Drabble's certainty about the world. This may be why she is better known for her novels.