Roddy Doyle is the author of eleven acclaimed novels, several of which were previously reviewed in this column. Covid posed a unique writing challenge for him and his new collection of stories. Life Without Children is set during the pandemic shutdown. Many of the characters are men whose children are grown and gone, yet these are happy endings, too- rooted in moments of connection, in finding new ways to talk to each other.
In The Five Lamps, a man is looking for his son who has been missing for four years. It is during the early lockdown in Dublin, where travel was restricted to five kilometers. The man saw “the streets empty, no one at all on them, and he thought to himself, I’ll find him now… Covid had cleared the path for him.” On his way the man encounters junkies, a helpful cashier at a kiosk, a generous delivery man and a precocious child offering advice.
Curfew takes place as “ ex-Hurricane Ophelia” is heading towards Dublin. It’s unnamed protagonist on the far side of fifty is dealing with overwhelming facts of his existence.
In Worms, the pandemic provides an opening. In the lockdown quiet, in the early days of the Corona, Joe an older man, begins hearing songs. Not like a thought, but lower, at ear level, as if he is actually hearing the thing. As they multiply, old songs attach to certain tasks, he wonders whether he’s making a compilation of his life, an earworm autobiography.
Perhaps the best story of the lot is The Charge, which is also the longest and most developed. Mick is stuck in a world he doesn’t understand, including the logistics of cell phones. He was the last man to get a mobile and he worries. Could a charger dangling in water kill him- when he went to lift it out?
The pandemic haunts these stories, rarely taking center stage, but always felt. This may not be Doyle’s best work, but it’s full of drama and pathos – bringing us humor amid the gloom. I rate this a TOP SHELF read.
*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Associates in Rocky River, Ohio. He received his Master’s Degree from John Carroll University in Irish Studies and has taught Irish Literature and Irish History.