"The Deportees and Other Stories," by Roddy Doyle (Viking, $24.95, 242 pp.)
If a nation as large and diverse as the United States can tie itself in knots over immigration, then what chance does so small and homogenous an isle as Ireland have to accommodate legal and illegal emigres from far different countries and cultures?
According to Roddy Doyle's debut short-story collection, the surprising " and welcome " answer is: "quite a bit."
Doyle may be best known to Americans as the author of the novel "The Commitments," which later became a 1991 movie. He has also won praise for such novels as "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors" and "Paula Spencer," and his "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" won the Man Booker Prize in 1993.
In his foreword to "The Deportees," after joking that perhaps a bootleg video of "Riverdance" is what attracted thousands of Nigerians to Ireland, Doyle writes that change certainly has come: "It happened, I think, sometime in the mid-'90s. I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one."
Nigerians, Romanians, Poles and others have found a new home in Ireland. When two Nigerians began publishing a multicultural newspaper, Doyle was intrigued and began contributing stories in monthly 800-word chapters. Eight appear in "Deportees" and they range from humorous to horrifying.
In the opener, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Larry, father of four feisty daughters and a smart-mouthed son, a good-hearted guy who has always encouraged their independent ways and verbal fisticuffs, must deal with his surprising uneasiness when one daughter brings Ben, an African colleague, home for dinner.
Larry knows he is not racist " well, he's pretty sure he's not " but the dinner is fraught with cringe-worthy misspeaking and misunderstanding. Luckily, Larry's sensible wife, Mona, is there to right the ship, and despite the embarrassments, a friendship is launched. The story is both funny and pointed, with somber moments that give it unexpected depth.
Another African, this one a 9-year-old, is the hero of "New Boy." Little Joseph has seen his father murdered, which he recalls in a wrenching flashback, and is perceptive far beyond his years. That's important on his first day at an Irish school, where the students aren't exactly singing "Kumbaya" at his arrival.
One nasty kid needles Joseph with a snot-laden finger-poke, and we expect a sad tale of bullying triumphant. But Doyle has other plans. Joseph, it turns out, knows how to fight back, and more impressive, how to bond with erstwhile enemies. He also has a teacher wise enough to understand what he needs to do.
Darkly funny is "Black Hoodie," in which some Irish kids and a Nigerian girl turn stereotyping on its tin ear with a twisted Junior Achievement-type business venture.
Satirical giggles also abound in "57% Irish," in which Ray Brady invents a neurological test for true Irishness that measures reactions to such totems as Robbie Keane's soccer goals, the Irish Tenors (and Celtic Tenors and Donegal Tenors and Four Kerry Tenors) and yes, "The Commitments." Not to mention Irish porn star Shamrock Chambers.
Far, far darker is "The Pram," in which a Polish nanny scares her charges, whom she dislikes, with a creepy fairy tale and then goes on to a shocking contretemps with the girls' wealthy, aggressive mother. The ending is chilling and profoundly disturbing.
"Home to Harlem" brings a young man whose heritage is both Irish and black to America, where he searches for a commonality in literature of both cultures.
"I Understand" features a young African man " very much like an older Joseph " who bravely faces the darkness of immigrant exploitation.
But the story that best embodies Doyle's affecting mix of hilarity, tenderness and hope is the title tale, "The Deportees." Here he brings back Jimmy Rabbitte, who years ago had pulled The Commitments together. Jimmy's married now, with a tart-tongued wife, three little ones and a fourth on the way. And this poppa's got a brand-new bag.
He wants to start a new band, made up of musicians from the world over. He gets them off the streets of Dublin, through advertisements and word of mouth and the allure of playing the music of " not Van Morrison, not U2, not those many tenors " but Woody Guthrie.
It's all very funny, with amusingly odd characters, punchy and potty-mouthed dialogue and a feel-great conclusion. Jimmy delivers his new baby himself and also births a great band. And Doyle midwifes an uplifting story that reminds us music is the universal language.