Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Roddy Doyle's "Oh, Play That Thing": Book Review

Years ago, I liked "A Star Called Henry" (Amazon review), but I did not love it. The revisionist take on the Irish war for independence soured the plot, and contended against Henry Smart's smart-aleck narrative voice, which propelled the action even as Doyle's cynicism stalled its momentum. So, a draw? The vivacity of the concept clashed with the grating attitude.

I understood this project, but the dour memory of "Star" kept me from grabbing this sequel for a few years. I confess no interest in jazz; as Louis Armstrong is the supporting role here, I figured I'd have little enthusiasm for Henry as he enters The Jazz Age after he flees Dublin as a wanted man.

Luckily, the research (as with "Star") credited at the close of this novel enriches its contents. Doyle hammers down a staccato, tough-guy command of dialogue that's almost parodic of the hardbitten genre, but it fits Henry and his molls and mobsters and hobos and hucksters. It's very literary, even as it tries to convince you it's vernacular, full of "yare" and not so much slang as gnawed and clamped speech.

The picaresque adventures of Henry Smart comprise four parts. Without spoiling much, as we know Smart will survive to tell more tales in "The Dead Republic," it begins in Manhattan. "They were families, three and four generations of them; the Irish traveled alone." This in the second paragraph of a dramatic arrival at Ellis Island shows immediately Henry's exile and his defiant, but lonely among crowds, character.

His escapades as a sandwich-board toting, hooch-smuggling New Yorker take up the first section, which although wonderfully described and full of immigrant vivacity ends a bit confusingly, if intentionally so. He flees to upstate, where he for a while succeeds with his partner in crime, as a dentist-diviner of water, an odd combination surely, and this flim-flam exposure will serve him in good stead later on. For a while, they make a fine team. "We pawed and ate each other till the walls sweated and we lay back under the blankets and coat and listened to our moisture on the wall turn to ice and slowly rip up the wallpaper." What an image. The lively action in such New York scenes, the strongest in the novel, as we watch Henry drum up customers while staying ahead of his pursuers, energizes this section. Again, he has to skedaddle out of town suddenly.

In Chicago, where "Black and Tan" takes on a whole new meaning, Henry's brief period at the stockyards is followed by his friendship with a rising talent, Louis Armstrong. "The trombone now rode every woman in the house and stepped back for a rest and a wash." The sex appeal of jazz and the star attraction of Armstrong congeal and thicken, as Henry is drawn in but kept at a distance in his companionship of "Pops," a young Louis the same age as Henry.

This relationship is explained as Armstrong needing a white man to keep him protected from the other white men who want to claim him; Louis' fierce independence contending against his need for backup, a way into the larger society which adores him yet shuts him out is well-handled by Doyle. "His horn was the song of freedom but his life was a crazy jail. He needed control, but he hadn't worked it out. I was the start but he wasn't sure how."

Yet, a crucial character returns in a chance meeting that defies probability. This happens when Henry and Louis are burglarizing mansions in Chicago to get by, and their frequent escapes from the Mob and their ilk make this rather cartoonish. Later, Henry will be saved at the last moment in another scene that feels as if stolen from a melodrama, and even if we know neither he nor Louis will suffer mortal danger, Doyle's storytelling stretches the limits of how much plot contrivance, among a nation as wide as America, one can believe, compared to Ireland, where Henry had similar rescues, if on a far smaller stage for such derring-do.

The third section takes Henry back to Manhattan, where a past lover turns up in a Sister Aimee Semple McPherson (by another name) role, which overlaps with Louis' acclaim in Harlem and beyond as the Depression begins. "They've no memory here. It gets in the way of progress." Still, he's hunted, despite such assurances that he can blend into Harlem and elude those who shadow him. So, it's off to the Midwest.

The Dust Bowl's ravages loom, and the desolation of the West consumes Henry and his compatriots.  At a hobo "jungle," he reflects. "The future and the past were one--grits, bacon, biscuits, gravy. Only the present got in the way, as we waited for the bits and miserable pieces in the pot to become a stew."

The wait here in this novel resembles its narrator's predicament. It's not that long a book, but this final section felt too compressed and perfunctory, as if Doyle along with Henry and his desperate, destitute companions melt into a summation of how legends are made, and the years begin to blur. Finally, none other than "print the legend" John Ford, no stranger to myth-making (he spouts one of his own from his life) provides a suitably climactic rescue one more time, but by then, the bravado and imagination for Henry's decades in the American heartland appear withered and washed up, despite his survival for the closing volume in this trilogy. (Amazon US 12-30-11)

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