In “57% Irish,” a story from Roddy Doyle’s 2007 collection, The Deportees, Ray Brady, in the employ of the Minister of Arts and Ethnicity, attempts to devise a test to determine the extent of one’s “Irishness.” He borrows a few things from his mother to test himself on, including her Irish Tenors CD, a Darina Allen (TV’s “The Irish Chef”) cookbook, and tapes of the Pope’s Mass in Galway, and The Commitments, Alan Parker’s terrific 1991 film made from Doyle’s first novel.
One can only hope that some enlightened director will read the Henry Smart books before Colin Farrell is too old to play the young Henry.
The last one is a wink from Doyle acknowledging his own impact on the culture of the Celtic Tiger. It’s also an indication of how far he has come since the book, about a rag-tag rock band that plays American soul music in the fictitious Barrytown (North Dublin), was published in 1987. Doyle’s lads and lasses regarded themselves, famously, as the “N-words of Europe,” a term he no longer uses, because with the prosperity and multiculturalism that have swept over Ireland in the last two decades, it’s no longer true. Sometime in the mid-'90s, he writes in the foreword to The Deportees, “I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one.”
Doyle can’t write with the lyricism of his countryman Sebastian Barry—he has described his own style, not altogether inaccurately, as “an awful lot of dialogue, an awful lot of gaps. And when in doubt say f---.” He lacks the magisterial tone of Colm Tóibín or the florid and fertile imagination of Patrick McCabe. But Doyle’s got rhythm and soul, and his achievement may be even greater than theirs.
The protagonist of Doyle’s last three novels, like his creator, went to bed in one country and woke up in another—several times, in fact. Henry Smart is sort of a combination of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, Woody Allen’s Zelig, perhaps a touch of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, and also, more than likely, the real life IRA gunman Ernie O’Malley, who wrote three vivid autobiographical books.
In A Star Called Henry (1999), he fights alongside Michael Collins and is having sex in the post office during the 1916 Easter uprising (if only Yeats had known—a terrible beauty indeed). Lined up for execution with Connolly, Pearse and the others, he escapes by opening a manhole cover and diving into the sewer. For years he traverses the Dublin underground through his knowledge of the sewer system, coming out occasionally to hear his praises sung in pubs. (Joyce bragged that Dublin could be reconstructed from the pages of Ulysses; if they were going to recreate the sewers, they’d have to consult Roddy Doyle.)
In Oh, Play That Thing (2004), Henry immigrates to America, a country that to him “was bigger than the world ... America was everything possible.” But Henry’s possibilities are limited. He becomes a bootlegger and a peddler of pornography. Moving on to Chicago, he becomes bodyguard and chauffeur for Louis Armstrong—“I was Louis Armstrong’s white man,” he recalls—trading murderous jibes and swapping shots with the Capone mob. By the end of the novel, he and his wife have become an Irish Bonnie and Clyde, moving down “roads that went on forever, as long as silence.” Separated from his family, Henry drifts out West and falls asleep in a ditch near Monument Valley; he’s awakened by Wyatt Earp—that is, Henry Fonda, walking off the set of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine to relieve himself.
That’s where the third and final volume of Henry’s saga, The Dead Republic, begins. “I died,” he says, “I came back from the dead, but Henry Fonda pissed on me.” Henry becomes a member of Ford’s (a.k.a. John Martin Feeney) entourage, swapping Gallicisms and IRA ballads, and chiding the director for inaccuracies in his 1935 film about the IRA, The Informer.
Smart is never quite taken in by Ford’s blarney: “He was building America, with John Wayne and the desert. He was giving Americans the history they wanted.” Ford’s intention is to give the Irish the history they want. Henry returns to his homeland with Ford’s company—Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond, et al—to film a story that is, ostensibly, about Henry and the Irish troubles. Gradually, he learns that the movie will be something more sanitized. After all, “No one is as sentimental as the Irishman who was never there in the first place.” Henry’s verdict of The Quiet Man: “It’s shite…but it’s beautiful.”
A self-made man when he left Ireland—“I didn’t even know I was Irish,” he says in A Star Called Henry—Smart muses on his return that, “It was 29 years since I left and five since I made up my mind to come back.” He has remade himself as an American; there are no records in Ireland to prove he ever existed. The themes of making and remaking are mirrored in the book’s title: the Irish republic that Henry helped birth, the American republic where he came of age, the revamped Irish republic he returns to, and even the studio of the man who presents America and Ireland with the rosiest view of themselves, Republic Pictures. As Henry observes in Oh, Play That Thing, “There was a lot of blood poured for that word republic.”
Henry Smart is a reflection of 20th century Irish fortunes while also serving as an indicator of the role American popular art, from Louis Armstrong to John Ford (who, for better or worse, has given the U.S. and the world the most enduring vision of American history), has played in helping the Irish to forge a new identity in the smithy of their souls. It’s a thread that has run through Doyle’s work from The Commitments to now—the transformation of a nation’s culture. In his short story “Home to Harlem,” a black youth born in Ireland comes to New York to write a book about “The Harlem Renaissance and It’s Influence on Irish Literature.” I can’t wait till he writes it.
Doyle’s ambition in the Henry Smart books is not only greater than any Irish writer of his era but of any American writer as well (with the possible exception of Kevin Baker and his historical City of Fire trilogy).
“He is a gift to the cinema,” James Wood wrote in 1993, “with his ready-made chunks of dialogue and the solid geography of his settings.” That was true of Doyle’s first three novels— The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van—all made into enjoyable films. But it’s equally true of his later novels, which filmmakers have shied away from. One can only hope that some enlightened director will read the Henry Smart books before Colin Farrell is too old to play the young Henry.
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic loved the rollicking humor of the early books; when the ugly issue of domestic violence arose in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (1996), some, as Doyle acknowledged in an interview, were “ a bit impatient ... because they felt I was going in a direction that they didn’t want me to go in. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s their problem, not mine.”
Judging from the qualified reviews, a lot of people have been reticent about fully embracing the Smart books. “Schematic” has been a frequent criticism, as if Dickens (whom Doyle has named as an influence) were the last novelist allowed this device. Still others are put off by the grandness of Doyle’s ambition; they seem to be saying “Stay home Boy-o, and stick to the neighborhoods y’know best.”
As far as I’m concerned, their lack of vision is their problem, not Doyle’s.
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.