Friday, February 10, 2012

Roddy Doyle's "A Star Called Henry": Book Review

If you read this, you should then compare it to Ernie O'Malley's memoir of fighting in the Irish independence struggle, "On Another Man's Wound." It's one of Doyle's credited sources, and Henry Smart acts out some of that memoir's best moments. The urge to demystify the icons of 1916 has been a strong tendency in recent historical studies of this period, and one that many intellectuals and writers in Ireland have espoused--at least in part.

Not that such a suspicious attitude towards hero-worship is not wise. It's just that, taken as an underlying motif in Henry Smart's growing-up, it weakens the novel's energy, and saps its cumulative narrative drive. Doyle describes many incidents vividly (as in "Paddy Clarke") in specific scenes. He gets down the inner voice of Henry and renders it at times grippingly.

Yet, as another reviewer here has noted, you wonder why, if he's so "smart," why he does not jump ship for America even before the British make him a wanted man. He spends the second half of the novel on the run, believing not in the cause but only in his cunning, yet he stays and endures not only the Rising, but the Tan War (and even the Civil War--disappointingly glossed over rapidly in the melodramatic final pages), when I could not understand why he remains so long in Ireland, since he has no loyalty to the ideals or the rhetoric or the future of the Irish nation anyway.

I know in my mind why Doyle sets up a revisionist narrator, but as a reader seeking a compelling story, his Henry fails to prove to me his smarts. Maybe we are meant to regard Henry as an unreliable narrator, but we are not given any other p-o-v to adequately balance against Henry's worldly-wise slum-kid skepticism. The tale--like its hero--runs out of steam long before it's over. Doyle gives us a young man who can figure out all of his opponent's gambits, but who does not believe enough in himself to win.

While attention to this engrossing period is to be commended, and Doyle has read widely while researching the details of early 20c Ireland, his urge to cut down the big figures leaves us with too little to care about. We become as fed up as Henry, and I wonder how the next two volumes will sustain him as he wanders through America. (Although I know I'll read vols. 2 & 3 anyway!) [[P.S. --and I did: see my Amazon US Dec. 2011 reviews of "Oh, Play That Thing" and "The Dead Republic."; this one above appeared way back Nov. 16, 1999 there.]

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