A few weeks ago I reviewed this book for The Toronto Star, but they haven't published it, so I thought I'd put it here. It's a terrific book.
by Roddy Doyle
In the foreword to The Deportees, a book of short stories dealing with the recent explosion of immigration to Ireland, Roddy Doyle writes, "I went to bed in one country and woke up in another." It's probably the way a lot of people in Ireland have felt over the last ten years, and, probably the way a lot of people in southern Ontario have felt over the last twenty.
Certainly there's been a lot of Canadian literature dealing with the immigration experience in Canada, but almost all of it has been from the point of view of the newcomer. What Roddy Doyle has done is completely different – he's written mostly about the immigrant experience from the point of view of born-and-raised Irish, in all the usual utterly frank and direct Doyle way.
So, in "Guess Who's Coming for the Dinner?" Larry Linnane is the modern Irish man – married father of four, employed and happy in his mid-life. And not a racists, no, not at all. Until he actually has to face the idea of one his daughters bringing home a black boyfriend. Doyle never stoops to presenting Larry (or anyone else in the book) as a stereotype, or racist buffoon, but he does have them ask themselves the tough questions. It's easy to be an open minded, progressive, non-racist when everyone you know looks just like you. But Larry really has no reference points for this new Ireland, so he considers the possibility, am I racist? And the question makes him squirm, even as he tries to reassure himself. "When he watched a footballer, for example, he didn't see skin; he saw skill. Paul McGrath, black and brilliant. Gary Breen, white and shite."
But he keeps asking and keeps squirming. He goes through all his emotions, all the confusion, anger and fear. Of course, he's not afraid of Africans or Russians, he's afraid of change. He went to bed in one country and he woke up in another and it's going to take a while to figure it out, to adapt, to adjust.
All the Irish-born characters in The Deportees are trying to figure it out. Along the way, they're getting a lot of it wrong, they're making a lot of mistakes (often hilarious, but also sad and moving), but they keep trying – what choice do they have? It's going to happen and no one's asking their opinion. Well, they have the Canadian choice of just not talking about it; putting on a smiling face and pretending they aren't confused or angry or scared at the way their home has become a completely different place when they woke up than it was when they went to bed. Live in complete denial.
Not all the stories (written in 800 word sections for a Dublin magazine, Metro Eireann, started by a couple of Nigerian journalists to be by and for the immigrant community in Ireland) are from Irish-born points of view; one's about a nanny from Poland, one about a boy from Nigeria and even one from an immigrant point of view Doyle doesn't reveal. All of them, though, are having a tough time putting up with the Irish-born. One story even offers a reverse on the usual Irish Diaspora; it's about Declan, a black Irish guy looking for his roots in the country of his ancestors – America.
In Canada we've been trying to define our culture forever, wondering if we even have one, and all this time we just assumed everyone else had a culture they could easily define, but in "57% Irish" Doyle subverts this idea hilariously. The Minister of Arts and Ethnicity hires a grad student to put together a test that can measure people's 'Irishness.' But a quiz won't do, the answers can be learned, instead a way is found to measure people's reactions to things like Robbie Keane's goal against Germany in the 2002 World Cup, Brendan Behan and Irish porn star Shamrock Chambers.
In the story "Black Hoodie" a teenage boy goes through all the angst of his first time asking out a girl (his father's advice, "just ask her") – except there's an added bonus, she's black, making it even tougher, "even here in multicultural, we-love-the-fuckin'-foreigners Dublin." Hard to imagine that sentiment in a Canadian novel. Harder still to imagine no Canadian has ever felt it.
Pretty much my whole life I've heard the same refrain; Canadians are racists but they don't think they are, Canadians don't make immigrants feel welcome, Canadians are doing it all wrong, and I've wondered, okay, so where's the model? Who can we look to and learn from? Who's doing it right? Roddy Doyle's doing it right; with insight and understanding and humour and the direct approach.