Thursday, February 16, 2012

Roddy Doyle's "The Dead Republic": Book Review

This continues where "Oh, Play That Thing" left off, with Henry Smart rescued by John Ford in the desert. Henry turns adviser for Ford, as he's determined to make an Irish film celebrating the technicolor version of the brawling and romancing old country. Henry, despite his reservations, spends the period around the late Forties, paralleling his own lifespan, fighting against and giving in to Ford. Despite contrived and melodramatic touches--common here as with previous volumes in "The Last Roundup" trilogy--Doyle offers deft insights, via Ford's direction, into how reality transforms into two hours of efficient storytelling on screen.

As with "Oh, Play" with the "timeless" quality of Louis Armstrong's musical choices, Doyle uses his insights into how entertainment shifts audiences into an altered reaction to emotion, and here, to Irish stereotypes.

John Ford's vision for "The Quiet Man" becomes another of his stories, when "America was right," and Ford keeps his secret for Henry: America's "full of folks who'll never be American," who will look at such depictions of America, and one day Ireland, as mythic victories against Apaches, Commies, or "bad palefaces." Henry eventually drifts off, discontented, and "stepping out of time" he expresses himself in confused time segments, as Doyle shuffles chronology around a few years here and there.

This slows the action, as in "Oh, Play"'s final sections, and as with that novel (see my review), the pace congeals and the tone darkens. As with the first volume, "A Star Called Henry"(also reviewed by me), it's a saga with very few moments of levity, if the same black humor, tart dialogue, and bitter observations of Henry Smart, our sour, aging, rambling narrator. I confess again that a dramatic "fluke"--following two or three in "Oh, Play,"--defies belief, but such is fiction, as Henry in vast America as in smaller Ireland manages to find who he searches for.

Henry realizes his complicity in this manufacturing of an Ireland different than that he'd imagined in peacetime, and this segues in part two into another sort of consulting for a reborn IRA. They use him as a way to invent their own version of a Gaelic, socialist, and 32-County nation whose rhetoric convinces few, but whose manipulation of violence and the response to violence brings him in the 1970s and 1980s into compromise, as his life and those of his loved ones are threatened by blackmail. The IRA advocates as in Henry's early career with its first incarnation the imposition of force--this time to bomb Northern Ireland into republican definitions of freedom.

Defeat as victory, hatred as the only way to a united Ireland, a lure for another generation's young men: "The victim's wheezy triumph." The 1981 hunger strikes eerily recall the desperation of 1920 for his generation fighting the British, and each other. Henry is pressured to inform by both sides, now the Irish police against Irish republicans. "I changed the tense from past to present and informed on people long dead."

He is paraded about by the IRA as their link to a legitimate early republic, that he fought for in 1916-22. He's a "holy relic," an "ancient activist," a "talisman," and a "living saint." Those few familiar with not only Gerry Adams but also Tom Maguire will recognize characters "inspired" by diehard republicans. Their bearded leader tells Henry, as the end seems near for the 1990s IRA: "We've battered all other definitions" of Irishness "into submission."

The highlights of this grim story remained Doyle's insights via Henry into the redirection of Irish possibilities as the postwar progress bloomed before stalling into junkies and violence with the Troubles, and then the "peace process" which had taken so much conniving and hatred to install.

It ends, weak and staggering with Henry at 108, as the sly, devious republicans continue to press their exclusive rendering of who's Irish as the only acceptable answer, nearly a century after Henry's rebels fought in 1916 for a somewhat more inspired vision of equality. For Henry and Doyle's other characters, it's a sobering scenario, and the trilogy continues its descent down to where it started, full of misunderstanding, fear, and betrayal. It's clever often in Doyle's sober take on mythic ways Ireland is made, but it moves at a measured pace and with few moments of peace to relieve the relentless darkness that surrounds most of Henry's days. It rewards those who know this period in Irish history and who have read volumes one and two, but it is not cheerful reading, and it is intricate, at times halting action, as devious republicans never stop outguessing our Henry. This wears out the novel's energy.

Perhaps fittingly, not for the propulsion of popular fiction but the more mordant eye cast on Doyle's recent Ireland,; it's not the song-filled, epic film, revolutionary posing that many view as his homeland, any more than Ford's "Quiet Man." This harsh lesson deepens the novel's impact, but it also weighs its heavy message down. (Amazon US 12-31-11)

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