Tuesday 21 November 2017

Henry may be a star, but he fades just a little as his story ends . . .

Roddy Doyle's attempt at taking on Ireland in the 20th century proves too much in this final instalment, writes Gerry Dukes

Last straw: Roddy Doyle's protagonist qualifies as a true master of mayhem.
Last straw: Roddy Doyle's protagonist qualifies as a true master of mayhem.

Gerry Dukes

This new novel is the final volume in Roddy Doyle's "The Last Roundup" trilogy, which began to appear in 1999 with A Star Called Henry. The second volume, Oh, Play That Thing, was published in 2004 and now the roundup is rounded off with The Dead Republic.

The central character, Henry Smart, was born at the beginning of the last century into the squalor and poverty of Dublin, the city that had the highest child mortality rate in the British Empire and the best tram system in the world. He grew to manhood in the slums and tenements and was taught to read by the Citizen Army. At the GPO in 1916 he learnt how to shoot and, in the basement of the building he learnt a different kind of shooting with Miss O'Shea of Cumann na mBan.

In due time Henry will marry Miss O'Shea, become a freedom fighter in the Anglo-Irish war and eventually an assassin in Collins' 'apostles'. Henry qualifies as a true artist of mayhem. The first volume ended with Henry clubbing a hypocritical politician to death, using his (Henry's) dead father's wooden leg as the blunt instrument, on the deep-pile carpet in the bedroom of Dolly Oblong -- Dublin's leading 'madame'. Henry leaves wife, daughter and murderous comrades behind as he lights out for the territories or, in diasporic parlance, Ellis Island and the land of opportunity.

Over the course of the second volume Henry gets by as a sandwich-board man, a small-time entrepreneur, a skimmer and scammer, driver and fellow-housebreaker with Louis Armstrong. His conquest of the ladies is as legendary as it was in the first volume until he is brought to heel -- though she uses a different anatomical trump card -- by his wife Miss O'Shea, who just happens to turn up in the right place at the right time. Her sharp-shooting skills will rescue him when his murderous former comrades catch up with him in Chicago.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 propels Henry, pregnant wife and daughter into homelessness and riding the rails in boxcars, crisscrossing the States. The family gets split up, Henry loses a leg (like father, like son) and is fitted with a wooden prosthesis. He spends a long time searching for his family but ends up being found semi-conscious in Monument Valley by Henry Fonda on the set of a John Ford movie.

The final volume opens with Henry Smart's return to Ireland with Ford, cast and crew for the making of The Quiet Man in 1951.

Henry thinks that Ford wants to make a second movie in Ireland, a film to be jointly scripted by Ford and Henry that will tell the unvarnished truth about Henry's life. The movie does not get made and Henry drifts into a job as a school caretaker in the new suburb of Ratheen on Dublin's northside.

Doyle is in familiar territory here because Ratheen bears a striking resemblance to Raheny, his own stomping ground. The place even has a hotel much frequented by both hot and cool republicans.

There is little point, however, in continuing to outline the action of the book because Doyle simply piles absurdity upon absurdity in the forlorn hope that they will eventually amount to a plot.

Henry, that master of mayhem, single-handedly eliminates the use of corporal punishment in the school where he works. He becomes a weekend gardener for a woman who turns out to be his long-lost and very elderly wife. She spends a long time in a coma and is eventually discovered to have been wired by the Special Branch so that they can keep tabs on Henry. He, meanwhile, loses his leg -- for the second time -- in an explosion in Talbot Street and is adopted as a mascot by the republicans in the north.

The blurb claims that "in three brilliant novels . . . Roddy Doyle has told the whole history of Ireland in the 20th century". If this is so, then Stephen Dedalus's nightmare is much scarier than we feared. Doyle, of course, has claimed publicly that he would love to take an editorial blue pencil to Joyce's Ulysses. He would be better employed applying it to this trilogy with its excess of a thousand pages carrying nearly half-a-million words, many of them used with the frequency and intensity to which, say, a Green Party deputy can only aspire.

The Dead Republic (Jonathan Cape, £17.99) Gerry Dukes is a writer and critic

Irish Independent

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