Oh, Play That Thing

Front Cover
Knopf Canada, 2005 - 376 pages
1 Review
Roddy Doyle’s last novel, A Star Called Henry, was chosen by the The New York Times Book Review as one of the eleven Best Books of the Year; The Washington Post said it was “not only Doyle’s best novel yet; it is a masterpiece, an extraordinarily entertaining epic.” Now Doyle, author of six bestselling novels, twice nominated for the Booker Prize and once a winner, turns his protagonist Henry Smart’s rich observation and linguistic acrobatics loose on America, in an energetic saga full of epic adventures, breathless escapes, and star-crossed love. Publishers Weekly says “Doyle just gets better and better.”

Our Irish hero arrives in New York in 1924 to bury himself in the teeming city and start a new life; having escaped Dublin after the 1916 Rebellion, Henry Smart is on the run from the Republicans for whom he committed murder and mayhem. Lying to the immigration officer, avoiding Irish eyes that might recognise him, hiding the photograph of himself with his wife because it shows a gun across his lap, he throws his passport into the river and tries to forge a new identity. He charms his way into the noisy, tough Lower East Side, reads to Puerto Rican cigar makers, hauls bottles for a bootlegger and composes ads on sandwich boards, finally setting up his own business with the intention of making his fortune. But he makes enemies along the way among mobsters such as Johnny No and Fast Olaf. Henry hightails it out of Manhattan with a gun at his back and Fast Olaf’s hustler of a half-sister on his arm.

This was a time when America was ripe for the picking, however, and a pair of good, strong con artists could have the world at their fingertips. The Depression was sending folks to ride the rails in search of a new life and new hope, and all trains led to Chicago. As Henry’s past tries to catch up with him, he takes off on a journey to the great port, where music is everywhere: wild, happy music played by a man with a trumpet called Louis Armstrong. Armstrong needs a white man, and the man he chooses is Henry Smart.

The bestselling A Star Called Henry followed Henry Smart from his birth in 1902 until the age of twenty, by which time he had already had a lifetime’s worth of adventures in his native Ireland. With these books, Doyle was trying in some ways to write a story like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, starting at the beginning of his life and following him through many years of adventures. To write the new book, he had to research the vanished world of pre-war America.

“I went to Chicago, on the south side, to see if any of the old jazz clubs were still around. I was very keen to see what Henry would have seen as he’d stood outside, under the awnings. But all the jazz clubs that were along State Street, they’re all go≠ every one of them’s gone. There’s one that’s still standing – it was, originally, The Sunset Cafe, where Louis Armstrong played, but now it’s a hardware store. The Vendome Cinema, where he used to play during the intermissions, is now a parking lot for the local college. That I found upsetting. But on the other hand it was very liberating because in its absence I can invent.”

Music, often American soul or blues, is always important in Roddy Doyle’s work, often as escapism for the working-class Dubliners in the Barrytown books. Doyle grew up listening to American music and likes to write while listening to music. For Henry in America, Doyle says, “when he hears this music, he feels he’s being baptized. He’s new. He feels he’s gotten away from Ireland. He’s gotten away from the misery of it all and he’s listening to this glorious celebration.”


From the Hardcover edition.

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About the author (2005)

Roddy Doyle was born in Dublin, Ireland. He attended St. Fintan’s Christian Brothers School and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from University College. For fourteen years he worked as an English and geography teacher in Kilbarrack, North Dublin, and his students provided inspiration for his first published novel, The Commitments. When Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize in 1993 while he was still in his thirties, he dedicated himself to writing full-time. After writing from nine to five each day, he spends his evenings with his wife and kids, “because it’s what I love to do.”

He achieved widespread recognition when The Commitments, about a young working-class Dubliner who organizes a soul band, was made into a hugely popular film in 1991 by Alan Parker. However, Doyle had first published the book himself in 1987 because he didn’t feel The Commitments fit in with other books coming out at the time; convinced it would be rejected, he and a friend figured out how much it would cost to publish it themselves – the same as a good second-hand car – and got a bank loan.

Meanwhile he got a lucky break when his first play, Brown Bread, was produced by a theatre group and staged at a large venue. The Commitments sold a few thousand copies and got a lot of attention because of a good cover and what Doyle calls an “arrogant” press release, but didn’t sell in big numbers. Then two Dublin writers gave the book to friends of film director Alan Parker in Los Angeles and he liked it; the film came out three years later. The book was picked up by a British publisher, and from then on his work would gain international acclaim and success.

The Commitments and his next two novels, known as the Barrytown Trilogy after the north Dublin estate modelled on Kilbarrack where they are set, focus on the Rabbittes, a family whose lives are a mixture of comedy, depressing poverty and domestic chaos. The second book, The Snapper, concerns the relationship between Jimmy and his eldest daughter when she becomes pregnant and faces becoming a single mother. Irish author Maeve Binchy called it “the most amazing account of a pregnancy ever written.” The Van focuses on a middle-aged man facing the loneliness and shame of unemployment and his effort to raise himself out of it by buying a rundown van to sell fish and chips from as the Irish soccer team wins its way into the finals of the World Cup. The Van was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1991 and all three books were made into films.

Doyle’s next novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a ten-year-old boy who watches his parents’ marriage disintegrate, won him the Booker Prize, Britain’s highest literary award in 1993. It is the most commercially successful Booker winner to date and is now available in nineteen languages. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, about an abused wife, was published three years later. Like the Barrytown Trilogy, both novels focus on families, which Doyle says is natural since it’s common in Ireland to live with your family right up to your mid-twenties and not stray far when you move out. “I’ve always lived within about three miles from where I was born.”

His work often involves brutality and violence. A Star Called Henry, the first installment of the Last Roundup Trilogy, was no exception. It encompasses the 1916 Rebellion and sectarian violence, something both Doyle’s grandparents would likely have been involved in. It received the best reviews he has ever had.

Doyle writes rowdy novels, full of Dublin vernacular and cursing so vibrant and charged that it is almost musical, vulgarity turned to poetry. His characters often fail but are survivors; their lives are tough, but beauty, dignity and tenderness prevail. He’s been called one of the great Dublin working class writers, but his work speaks to people all over the world. “What I try to do with my stories is take universal issues and set them in a couple of square fictional miles in Dublin.”


From the Hardcover edition.

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