Patrick Boyle David Dempsey

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David Dempsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Working within the tradition of the modern Irish short story [in At Night All Cats Are Grey, Patrick Boyle] has freed himself of the gentle pathos that became Frank O'Connor's hallmark; he avoids, too, Sean O'Faolain's generally cheerful outlook on his countrymen. It is as though he wanted to dig deeper into a vein already well mined. Boyle's is a more somber disposition; a realist who rarely softens the edges of life, he is closer to the Joyce of Dubliners than to his contemporaries. But, although he shares Joyce's fascination with words, they are not so much the talismans that Joyce eventually made them as tap roots linking his characters to the deeper, inarticulate realities of their lives. If some of the writing seems overdescriptive, what results is nevertheless a sense of authenticity and a conviction that the author chooses not to trade the harshness of his world for stylistic facility. In his best stories some bleak truth is pried loose from its hidden depths and floated to the surface. And it is here that Boyle's meticulous observation pays off.

In "Meles Vulgaris" he uses the theme of brutality to define both heroism and cowardice. The strength of this story is in the long, detailed description of a forced "match" between a captured badger and a pack of dogs…. What this is becomes apparent when a married couple recall the excitement of the match years later, with a mixture of pleasure and bitterness….

This is the kind of story that is usually resolved through sexual reconciliation and self-pity. For Boyle, that is too easy. It is pain that lasts. The man has become morally disincarnated, and his awareness of it is unbearable….

Boyle can be funny. "Myko" is a wild folktale about a tinker who outwits a bartender-undertaker by returning an unwanted coffin with a corpse inside. (This is one of the few "typically Irish" stories in the book.) "Square Dance" gets its bite from the combination of innocence and of malice that controls the characters' actions; for, generally speaking, Boyle's humor is not to be laughed at. Or, at least, it's no joke. The prevailing mood is gloomy—the tear without the smile….

These are not pleasant stories, and we come away from them as we might from some natural catastrophe, grateful that they happened to others.

David Dempsey, "'At Night All Cats Are Grey and Other Stories'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 27, July 5, 1969, p. 34.