by Roddy Doyle
Review by Bill Kirton
So far, there are two books in Roddy Doyle’s The Last Roundup. The first, A Star Called Henry, was (apparently, because I haven’t read it) brilliant; the second, Oh, Play That Thing! (which I have read), seems to have disappointed his fans because they felt let down by it. Its opening and some of the themes which thread through it make it clear that it’s part of a continuum and its ending sets up a return to Dublin in a novel which has yet to appear. This creates tiny problems when treating it as a self-contained work but maybe also explains some of my reservations as I read it.
First, I need to state my respect and admiration for Doyle. His Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is the only Booker Prize winner I’ve enjoyed without reservation and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is terrible and superb. (‘Terrible’ here doesn’t mean bad. I remember little of most books I read but one kiss in this one has stayed with me because it defines a relationship in a way which denies love, sexuality, affection and all the normal associations of kissing. It’s a powerful book.)
So I had high-ish hopes of Oh, Play That Thing! and, sure enough, it gallops into its picaresque stride right away with the hero, Henry Smart, leaving Liverpool and arriving on Ellis Island, ready to take on America and evade his IRA pursuers. Characters, actions, gags as well as social observations pile on top of one another and Henry has little time to worry about the killers who are after him or even to give much thought to the woman and child he’s left behind. His wits, humour and way with words help him to start making a good living, get laid and become a noticeable presence, first in New York then, when his unwise choices set more big hitters against him, in Chicago.
So far, so entertaining. As well as following his fortunes, we’ve seen how immigration works and what sort of things went on to beat Prohibition. We’ve met larger than life characters who’ll return later and who fit easily into and contribute to the novel’s dynamics. But I have to admit that, even as I was enjoying reading it, I found myself asking ‘So what?’, ‘What point’s being made?’, ‘What’s it all for?’ I know, I know, novels don’t have to be ‘for’ anything as long as they’re pleasurable to read. But here there was a sense of an underlying purpose which was refusing to emerge.
Then, in Chicago, enter another character, one who takes over the narrative drive and draws Henry along with him. OK, fine. It’s still Henry who’s the narrator and it’s still his story. But this other character is Louis Armstrong – not just any old Louis Armstrong but THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG. Again, that’s fine if he just appears in order to add authenticity and a sense of the period Henry’s living through, but no, he’s closely woven into events. And so I stop believing in any of it. He chooses Henry as ‘his white man’ to help keep other white men away, he helps Henry to escape from some pursuers, in fact, he becomes part of Henry’s story. And yet simultaneously this is Louis Armstrong, who’s living his own story.
And, in the end, that helped me to explain my unease about this book. Maybe Doyle is deliberately breaking the conventions; he’s earned the right to do so and has the talent to pull it off. But when he punctures the illusion of his fictive reality in that way, he’s asking too much (of this reader at least). So later – after many, many more adventures, near misses, shootings, the discovery and subsequent loss of his wife and children (he adds a son to his family in the midst of his other adventures), encounters with the IRA and the New York people who are looking for him, etc., etc. – when we get to the Great Depression and the trek westwards, riding box cars through the American Dustbowl, the sense of a fractured fictional experience takes over. The descriptions of the poverty and hardships of those years are powerful, relentless. There’s no doubting how much Doyle was moved by what those who lived through it experienced, but it feels as if it’s been grafted on to a different story – that of Henry – and Henry’s woes (the loss of his family and a leg) are irrelevant because, after all, they’re not ‘real’. Doyle’s lost the balance between his central narrative and its backgrounds and settings. I know they inform each other but there’s such a stylistic difference between them, such a tension between what one feels about the realities of life for the underclasses in the USA at that time and what one feels for the not always attractive central character that one can’t commit fully to the reading experience.
By the time I got near the end, when Henry’s wandered into the desert, felt himself to be dying and then is found by Henry Fonda, who’s filming nearby, Doyle had lost me. I’d still enjoyed reading it all, I had the feel of things such as Prohibition, bootlegging, the impact of jazz, the Irish diaspora and the Depression, but it felt episodic and I’d lost my belief in the reality of the central character. So much so that I don’t think I’ll bother to read A Star Called Henry, even though, according to fans, it’s a much better book. However, if and when the next in the series appears, I may well give it a try. Doyle’s too good a writer to dismiss so easily.