Questions and Topics for Discussion
Roddy Doyle’s eight novels have established him as one of the best-loved chroniclers of the contemporary Irish experience. The toughness and charm of his characters in the face of poverty, domestic abuse, and the weight of stifling social norms have won him millions of readers around the world and have spawned three highly acclaimed films. The Deportees and Other Stories continues his winning streak in writing perceptive, poignant, and funny fiction about Ireland. For all the familiarity of Doyle’s voice and setting, however, The Deportees represents a break from his past fiction in two significant respects: the structure of the book, and the social demography of his subjects.
The Deportees is Doyle’s first collection of short stories. While his previous novels have traced the misadventures of a single character within a teeming social milieu, each of the eight stories in The Deportees has a different protagonist. What’s more, most of the stories were written in eight-hundred-word installments for serial publication in the monthly periodical Metro Eireann. These segments—six to fifteen in number, depending on the length of the story; sometimes titled, sometimes not—give the stories a pleasing built-in momentum, with a quick turnaround or mini-climax punctuating the narrative every couple of pages or so, tugging the reader along.
The second, equally obvious departure marked by The Deportees and Other Stories concerns the ethnicity of its primary characters. With two exceptions, every story in the book prominently features characters who are immigrants or expatriates or both—four of them, specifically, from Africa. Doyle writes in his introduction that “one in every ten people living in Ireland wasn’t born here” (xiii), and that this nation-changing influx came on startlingly quickly: “I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one” (xi). Against this roiling backdrop of change, tension, confrontation, paranoia, and acceptance, of black men and women coming to live and work in one of the oldest, most tradition-bound nations in Europe, Doyle constructs these cunning, twisty tales, playing off the reader’s embedded expectations and stereotypes like a maestro.
In these days of globalization and terrorism, with venomous debates over immigration and identity, The Deportees has explicit relevance. Speaking of contemporary fiction as having a “message” is, of course, considered ridiculously unfashionable and grade schoolish; yet these stories are so unexpected in their turns toward the accidentally humane, so humble and cheering in their humor and small decencies, that one cannot help but feel that the simple act of reading them is somehow bearing witness to the possibility of a saner, freer world. Doyle has a clear eye, and is unafraid. Those are especially valuable traits for a writer, so far, in this still-new century.
ABOUT RODDY DOYLE
Roddy Doyle was born in Dublin in 1958 and attended University College, Dublin, before becoming a teacher in Kilbarrack, North Dublin. He has written eight novels, including Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which won the Man Booker Prize in 1993. Each of the books in his Barrytown trilogy has been made into a successful film, with Doyle doing the screen adaptations himself. He has also written several stage plays and books for children and young adults. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSMost of the stories in The Deportees turn on moments when an ethnic preconception is upended. For example, in “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner,” the first of such moments occurs when Ben arrives for dinner wearing a formal suit. Can you identify such moments in the other stories? How are they handled differently from story to story? Do these reversals of perception generally come as a surprise?
Three of the stories—“Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner,” “New Boy,” and “I Understand”—feature African immigrants who have fled dangerous situations at home. How does the author make you aware of these characters’ pasts? How do their violent pasts shape their reactions to their current dilemmas?
The members of the wildly heterogeneous band Jimmy assembles in the title story are united by their shared love of music. How does music work in the story to overcome differences of background, education, and race?
On the verge of being punished by the teacher, Joseph, in “New Boy,” says that “he is, at this moment, quite happy” (p. 97). Why is he happy at that moment? What does this suggest about his personality? About his powers of observation? What do you think Joseph’s future at the school holds?
In “57% Irish,” Raymond decides to rig the xenophobic Fáilte Score after having sex with his foreign-born girlfriend. Does Ray’s lack of honesty detract from the positive effect of his interference with the immigration procedure? What does his confusion say about his motives? How does the conversation at the end of the story reflect his attitude toward what he has wrought?
The young, anonymous protagonist of “Black Hoodie” tells his story in the first person, often addressing the reader directly. How does this device influence your perception of the narrator? How would the story be different if, as in most of the other stories, it was written in the third person?
Even by Doyle’s standards, the narrator’s voice in “Black Hoodie” is exceptionally colloquial. How does this affect your understanding of the character? Do you ever have difficulty, here or elsewhere, in deciphering Doyle’s slang? Does the use of informal vernacular add to or distract from the stories’ impact?
“The Pram” bears a resemblance to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a novella famous for inciting debate about the ambiguous nature of its narrator’s mental health. Are you ever convinced that the pram could genuinely be haunted? Why does Alina’s strategy of frightening the two girls boomerang on her? Is Alina insane? Are there extrinsic causes for her breakdown?
In “Home to Harlem,” Declan says, “That’s what being Irish is a lot of the time, passing for something else—the Paddy, the European, the peasant, the rocker, the leprechaun” and that “it’s sometimes funny; it’s sometimes dangerous and damaging” (p. 201). What are some examples in the stories of this masquerade being “funny”? What are examples of its being “dangerous and damaging”? How does Doyle balance these two elements of identity?