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A Star Called Henry / Oh, Play That Thing

by Roddy Doyle

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle
Two out of three ain't bad.

In fact, Roddy Doyle's series of history-tinged novels, known as The Last Roundup, might be more than a trilogy if he cannot get a handle on his impulsive hero. In the meantime, his readers are blessed with a tangled, sharp-edged epic in the story of young Henry Smart, born at the turn of the century into the bloodthirsty bedlam of Dublin, Ireland. The first volume, A Star Called Henry, recounts in violent detail the circumstances of its protagonist's young life and his fierce initiation into Irish life. The first book culminates in his presence during the famous uprising of 1916, as Henry dodges British gunfire inside Dublin's General Post Office, and leads to his banishment to America in the second volume, Oh, Play That Thing.

Doyle has fashioned a most singular worldview out of Henry's eyes and despite the unruly nature of his first-person narrative, Henry is one of the most distinctive characters in modern Irish literature. He is, not to put too fine a point it, the most belligerent little bastard in the world, shouting his name and carving a life out of the mud and the blood into which he was born.

Reckless Abandon

"Was I obedient?" Henry asks early on in A Star Called Henry. "Did I obey my daddy? I did like fuck. I screamed back up at him, my purple turned to black. I shoved my terror up into his face. And he stopped. He stopped shouting at me. He saw that I'd die before I'd stop, I'd scream my life away before I'd let him better me. What about meeee?"

As far as storytelling goes, it is extremely messy. The biggest risk of writing a story this bloody big is that Doyle is hinging everything on the reader's attraction to Henry Smart. Not only is it written first person, told by Henry, but it follows the same savagely minimalist style that marked Doyle's famous debut, The Commitments. Characters shout and bark and whip each other in bullet-fast dialogue that can leave those unaccustomed to the Irish vernacular gasping for breath. At the same time, no one has an ear for the language of Dublin like Doyle. While it takes some getting used to, the dialogue cracks like lightning between characters, punctuated harshly and frequently by four-letter epithets. To be fair, even Doyle has admitted that without profanity, the Irish would find it difficult to communicate at all.

Doyle has also readily expressed his new experimentation with plot. While his previous novels have mostly kept to straightforward, linear plots, here Doyle jumps back and forward in his story by months and sometimes years in the same chapter. Henry tells his story as people remember their lives, in fits and starts, with vast stretches fading to obscurity and important moments captured as clearly as photographs.

While he is most important, Henry is also joined on his journey by an array of bizarre characters. Even more so than today, Dublin of a century ago is populated by gangsters, gunrunners, cops, heroes and whores and it seems that Henry has touched the lives of all of them in some way. Henry also runs alongside real historical figures from Dublin's bloody history as he shoots his way across the city alongside men like the poet Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and "the big fella," Michael Collins. Alongside these rebel leaders, Henry also meets Piano Annie, the madam Dolly Oblong, and gangster Alfie Gandon - just some of the characters that, while they sometimes sound straight out of a Dick Tracy comic strip, give a wonderfully rich and dangerous canvas on which Henry can slap down his story.

Oh Play That Thing by Roddy Doyle
However, the distinctive manner in which A Star Called Henry is presented doesn't relieve the fact that it is still an investment for the reader. A Star Called Henry is not easy, not a beach read and not a front running candidate to fit into the disparate canon of Irish literature. That said, both books chronicling Henry's world are fast moving, boisterous rides and by the end of the first book, though, you definitely want to know where Henry is heading.

"I'd start again," says Henry. A new man. I had money to get me to Liverpool and a suit that didn't fit. I had a wife I loved in jail and a daughter called Freedom I'd held only once. I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know if I'd get there. But I was still alive. I was twenty. I was Henry Smart."

Immigrant in Exile

Run out of Ireland at the point of a gun, Henry Smart lands where many good Irish lads and lasses have gone when they've "died." Everyone ends up at Ellis Island.

So begins Oh Play That Thing, the newly released second book in The Last Roundup, in which our hero tangles with the Mob, traverses America, and winds up palling around Chicago with Louis Armstrong.

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