In the character of the rebel Henry Smart, born in a Dublin slum in 1901, Roddy Doyle seemed to have invented the perfect vehicle for portraying the struggle for independence and the development of “modern Ireland”. Inspired by the techniques of magical realism, Smart was an apparently superhuman protagonist. His battles in the first novel of this trilogy, A Star Called Henry, first with the British and then with his own comrades, shone a brilliant light on a period that in the popular imagination was often peopled by distant saints. The second novel, Oh, Play That Thing, placed him in the US of the 1920s with jazz maestro Louis Armstrong. It shouldn’t have worked but it did.
So to say that this final novel was keenly anticipated would be an understatement. Unfortunately though, it’s a disappointment. For one, it’s hugely ambitious. Spanning the 60 years from the mid 20th century to the present day, Henry returns to Ireland in 1951. He is acting as “IRA consultant” to the Irish-American director John Ford, who is filming The Quiet Man in the west of the country.
There are many reasons to have a go at this film. It mythologised rural Ireland, mainly for the benefit of the Irish-US diaspora. But Henry’s battles with Ford, which have a biblical feel, take up virtually the whole first half of the book. And Doyle doesn’t successfully make the necessary transition from Ford’s fantasies to the gritty reality of 20th century Ireland. It feels like two different books, and might have worked better if it was.
The leaps in the plot and the timeframe thereafter take us at a mean lick through the 1950s and 1960s, to the 1970s with the Dublin bombings as backdrop, through the hunger strikes and eventually – via the peace process – to the near-present. It’s breathtaking stuff, but rather too breathtaking, with characterisation one of the major casualties.
Doyle was always taking a risk with the qualities he ascribed to the star of these books. Some of my friends in Ireland laughingly called Henry “Super-Dub” – a Dubliner with super-human abilities. There was a grain of truth in this, but I always felt that with the first two novels they’d missed the point. However, in the final novel it does become a difficulty. The problem is that Henry is getting old. In the first two books he made – or helped make – history. Here he mostly watches, as other much less well-drawn (or sympathetic) characters make the running. And while in some ways this is the point that Doyle is making, it’s hard not to feel disappointed at Henry’s decline.
Doyle is a great writer, and there are still some brilliant passages. My own favourite is when Henry takes a job as a caretaker in a primary school and prevents the teachers brutalising the kids. In the end though, the book feels like a coda. In some ways this is inevitable, given that it’s the final novel in the trilogy and one that examines what is mostly a bleak period in Ireland’s history. But it’s also a massive shame, given the promise of the first two books. If you’ve read these, you’ll want to read this, but it’s one for the completists, rather than the classic finale many of us hoped for.
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