Sunday, May 22, 2011

Roddy Doyle Plays That Thing

It's a surprise to realize just now that I read the first of Roddy Doyle's Henry Smart trilogy, A Star Called Henry (1999), back before I started this blog. (Doyle has called the trilogy "The Last Roundup.") That book, with its historically accurate and realistic account of the Irish "Easter Rising" of 1916 from the point of view of an Irish republican combatant, is quite vivid in my mind. The seizure and subsequent siege of the General Post Office in Dublin was memorably depicted. I think that that novel ranks with two other novels of historical and social realism that I've posted about here, James Plunkett's Strumpet City (1969), an account of the earlier dockworker's strike, and Thomas Flanagan's excellent The Year of the French (1979), a novelization of the ill-fated revolt of 1798.

In this second installment, Oh, Play That Thing! (2004), Doyle takes his project in a different direction. The project here is not so much historical fictionalization as it is a popular invocation of the spirit of a time and place, in this case the US in the 1920s and 1930s. Historical characters are freely woven into the story and the choice is made to pursue an epic story over any pretense to believability. Henry Smart is run out of New York by the local gangsters and almost run out of Chicago as well before he catches the eye of a young Louis Armstrong, who can use a white companion as he struggles with the racial barriers of the early 1920s pop music scene. Later on Smart is again saved, this time by Henry Fonda on location in Monument Valley: think E. L. Doctorow or T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Doyle has been criticized for trivializing the Henry Smart story in this way, but I think that his choices are defensible (although I don't think that Oh, Play That Thing! is as good a novel as A Star Called Henry). First, Henry Smart becomes, as Doyle widens his canvas, more of a symbolic character, a kind of embodiment of Irish toughness as a contribution to America. He's a caricature for sure, tough and rough and irresistible to women, a magnet for jealous mobsters, and pursued by shadowy Irish assassins who are (for somewhat under-motivated reasons) intent on hunting him down to the ends of the Earth. As to that, and secondly, Doyle finds Jazz Age America an intoxicating, phantasmagorical, you-can't-make-it-up kind of place, which it is, and so he decides to just let it rip. There's a little too much tough-guy masochism, and maybe one run too many at evoking the delerium of the hopping jazz club. Not Doyle's best but worth reading, I will certainly go on and read The Dead Republic (2010), the last of the trilogy.

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