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Play That Thing
by Joe Wiebe
Roddy Doyle's seventh novel picks up where his last, A Star Called Henry (1999) left off. Its protagonist Henry Smart, survivor of virtually every important (and bloody) event in the first quarter of twentieth century Irish history, has escaped from British jail and made his way to America. For any readers who have not had the pleasure of meeting Henry yet, allow me to introduce you. Born in 1901, he is a handsome man, good in a fight, smooth with the ladies, and carries a wooden leg (his father's) that is Henry's favoured weapon as an I.R.A. assassin.
But his I.R.A. days are over, or so he tells us, and now he is looking to start life anew. Doyle is one of the English language's finest living wordsmiths, and he wastes no time in showing off. Here's a glimpse of his genius from page 7:
Doyle casts his quintessential Irish protagonist head-first into the American dream. Though it starts off well, this first stretch of the book gets a little bogged down. Henry mixes it up with various gangsters and women, and it is difficult to keep everyone straight. And some of Henry's charm disappears, too, as if removing him from Ireland flattens him out somehow, weakening him in the reader's eye.
Henry is forced to leave New York to escape the mob. He lands in Chicago where he meets Louis Armstrong - yes, the Louis Armstrong - and the novel comes alive again. Smart becomes Armstrong's "white man." Ironically, many of the top jazz clubs in the 1920s were open to white customers only, even though the musicians up onstage were almost universally black. Henry's skin colour allows Louis access to places where he could not go on his own. As a result, Doyle places his protagonist in the best places: beside Armstrong as he makes deals with music producers, in the corner of the recording studio as Satchmo changes music forever, or in Armstrong's dressing room when mobsters come to pay tribute to the musical genius.
Doyle plays fast and loose with the facts, certainly, but that is perfectly in line with the convention he started in A Star Called Henry. Whether it is the truth or just Henry's ego talking, he always finds himself at the centre of the most important action of the moment. It is completely worth stretching your range of skepticism because Louis Armstrong is a great and memorable character in Doyle's capable hands.
With Louis Armstrong in the book, there has to be music. Doyle, like no one else, renders music alive so well that you not only hear the song, you feel it vibrating in your bones, under your skin. He merges song lyrics right into the action using a stylistic device pioneered in The Commitments, his first novel (on which the 1991 movie is based). In this case, the jazz singer Letha Hunter finds herself unexpectedly on stage in front of Louis Armstrong and takes full advantage of the rare opportunity:
Henry parts ways with Armstrong shortly before the Depression hits, and in the Dirty 30s, he rides boxcars back and forth across America. This John Steinbeck homage feels a bit contrived, too much like Doyle checking off 'Riding trains with Okies' on his Henry Smart To Do list. The story gets stretched quite thin here; it feels like the author is just killing time until the next important encounter in Henry's life.
Sure enough, fast forward to 1946. Half-dead in a Utah desert, Smart is saved by Henry Fonda. The actor is working on a western, My Darling Clementine, directed by none other than John Ford, the famous Irish director of such classics as The Quiet Man and How Green Was My Valley. The novel comes to an end without a satisfying climax, but its last few pages promise that there is much yet to happen to Henry Smart.
In spite of the relatively poor finish, Oh, Play That Thing is still worth reading, if only for the dazzling sequences involving Louis Armstrong. Doyle calls this book Volume Two of The Last Roundup. His intention is for Henry Smart's life to span the twentieth century, so presumably, the series will run for two more volumes. It will undoubtedly be a fine collection of writing, but for now, readers will have to wait for all the threads to be woven together.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.