Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Star Called Henry

A Star Called Henry (1999) is a novel by Irish writer Roddy Doyle. It is Vol. 1 of The Last Roundup series. The second installment of the series, Oh, Play That Thing, was published in 2004. The third, The Dead Republic, was published in 2010. The book follows the early life of Henry Smart, from his childhood in the slums of early 20th century Dublin to his involvement in the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence.

The novel is set in Ireland in the era of political upheaval between the 1916 Easter Rising and the eventual truce signed with the United Kingdom in 1921, seen through the eyes of young Henry Smart, from his childhood to early twenties. Henry, as a member of the Irish Citizen Army, becomes personally acquainted with several historical characters, including Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and Michael Collins. Energized by Sinn Féin's victory in the General Election of 1918 and the party's establishment of the independent Irish Republic, Henry participates in the Soloheadbeg Ambush, the first engagement of the Irish War of Independence, as a lookout.

Later, he becomes a gunman in the ensuing guerilla war against the British, setting barracks on fire, shooting G-men and training others to do the same. At the end of the novel, Henry comes to think that the endless violence and killing of innocent people has little to do with the concept of a free Ireland, or the prospect of a better life in Ireland and more about personal gain.

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Roddy Doyle is a phenomenon in more ways than one. All of his five novels have been bestsellers, and one has won the Booker. All have been written in a staccato Dublin demotic, invigorating and foul-mouthed; conversation novels, but a world away from, say, Henry Green. One, at least, was a masterpiece, the infinitely haunting The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. His new book, which starts another trilogy, veers away into the completely new territory of the historical novel, and it may prove to be his most surprising achievement yet.

A Star Called Henry views the Irish revolution of 1916-21 from below. The Dublin slum-kid protagonist, Henry Smart, is born in 1902, his teenage mother sinking into drink, his one-legged father a brothel-bouncer and commercial hit man, his strangely detached granny an addict of women's fiction. There are no comforts: he lives on the streets, and life is about survival. But he is blessed with propulsive self-confidence (his first words are 'HEN'Y' and 'UCK OFF!', very Roddy Doyle) and he knows everything: 'I was never a child.'

The novel's greatest triumph is to recreate this world in Doyle's distinctive shorthand, without any creaky historical set pieces, and make it utterly convincing. Henry, huge, precocious, bursting with uneducated brains and well-directed randiness, becomes a docker, graduates into the socialist Citizens' Army and then the Fenian movement, fights (at 14 years old) in the 1916 Rising and the subsequent guerrilla war, becomes a fearsome trainer of freedom-fighters, killer of policemen, and Republican legend. But it is all very unlike the history books. He hates the mystics, the 'farm boys', the Holy Joes, the people who want 'to put harps on everything'. Like his father, he kills for a living, but he sees it differently, and the hard realities of class differences are only partially obscured by the gunsmoke and the derring-do.

The story is gripping enough, though there are longueurs in the central section, dealing with raids, rallies, life on the run, and unremitting but improbable fornication. Doyle's technique and influences are worth close analysis, however, because this is a very clever performance. Historical novels run a constant risk of lurching into costume drama, especially when they employ 'real' people, and are as well-grounded as this one in historical sources: connoisseurs of the Irish revolution's profuse memoirs will hit upon countless lightly disguised references and incidents.

Doyle, however, avoids creaky verismo by using a carefully gauged admixture of magic-realist techniques. Henry's status as child of his century owes something to Rushdie's Midnight Children, his supernormal abilities to Grass's The Tin Drum, his take on history-as-slang to Carter's Wise Children. This is august company, but A Star Called Henry holds its own with them, as with the historical novel it most resembles: John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. The protagonist's ruthlessness is mixed with an innocence that protects as well as condemns him. 'History' is a joke and a jade, and mysterious characters come and go such as Henry's teacher and lover, Miss O'Shea, and the Brechtian boss figure, Alfie Gandon, with whom the revolution, and the novel, begins and ends.

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In a book season filled to bursting with memoir-style novels and books about all manner of Irish stuff, A Star Called Henry stands apart. Booker Prize-winning author Roddy Doyle brings us the story of Henry Smart, born in the slums of Dublin in 1902, the son of a one-legged whorehouse bouncer and a woman possessed of a beautiful name and little else.

Dublin-based Doyle is the author of five previous novels, among them The Commitments, for which Doyle also co-wrote the screenplay, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, for which he won the Booker.

In the opening passages of A Star Called Henry, Doyle explains the book's cryptic title:

My mother looked up at the stars. There were plenty of them up there. She lifted her hand. It swayed as she chose one. Her finger pointed.

-- There's my little Henry up there. Look it.

I looked, her other little Henry sitting beside her on the step. I looked up and hated him. She held me but she looked up at her twinkling boy. Poor me beside her, pale and red-eyed, held together by rashes and sores. A stomach crying to be filled, bare feet aching like an old, old man's. Me, a shocking substitute for the little Henry God had wanted for himself. Poor me.

And poor Mother. She sat on that step and other crumbling steps and watched her other babies joining Henry. Little Gracie, Lil, Victor, another little Victor. The ones I remember. There were others, and early others sent to Limbo; they came and went before they could be named. God took them all. He needed them all up there to light up the night. He left her plenty, though. The ugly ones, the noisy ones, the ones He didn't want -- the ones that would never stay fed.
Doyle's voice never falters as he tells Henry's story. It is absolutely compelling and beautifully real: even when the images he gifts us with are less than lovely.

The Dublin that Doyle paints is filled with hunger and death and ugliness. Ripe, in fact, for rebellion. Which is just what happens: both in Doyle's story and in history. But that's later. First we travel with Henry through his very early years. At five, he and his younger brother Victor take to the streets. It's not so much a decision as a happening. There is nothing to be eaten and nothing to keep them warm in the series of tenements they call home. And so the two beg and steal and otherwise eke out their meager -- yet richer -- existence.

These early chapters fairly hum with the certainty of Doyle's craft. His re-creation of the slums of Dublin is real enough to be frightening yet, because it's Doyle, there are passages rich in the humor that fills Real Life.

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Roddy Doyle, buoyantly astringent chronicler of the urban Irish poor, has written an epic of revising anger about Ireland's national legend. Melding Joyce's ''old sow that eats her farrow'' with the classic phrase about revolutions devouring their offspring, he comes up with an independence struggle that grows its children for food right from the start, trumpets a belch and gets fat.

''A Star Called Henry'' is the most ambitious and wide-ranging work yet by the author of the remarkable ''Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,'' ''The Woman Who Walked Into Doors,'' ''The Commitments'' and others. These were large books drawn on narrow circumstances. Doyle has been a Gorky of the Dublin lower depths -- funnier and not much less adept in writing of slum ugliness with an odd beauty that doesn't lift it but us.

The new novel takes the form of a scouring journey through history by Henry Smart, its narrator and protagonist. Born in atrocious poverty at the start of the century, he makes a child's rough way in the streets, joins the nationalist uprising at 14, serves as a gunman under Michael Collins and becomes marked for elimination by his own leaders. About to negotiate the 1921 truce and Free State, they judge him a dangerously hard man, likely to fight along with the rejectionists in the looming civil war. Dangerous Henry is, but the opposite of hard. His war already lost to disillusion, he skips off for England and the coming volumes of what is planned as a trilogy.

So much for misleading summary. ''A Star Called Henry'' is not a historical novel in any usual sense of the term. Doyle uses history, sometimes splendidly, but he has no use for it. He rages against it with an energy that spins the smart machineries of the writing, and occasionally seizes them up. History (as Peter Lorre said of time in ''Beat the Devil'') is a crook. It is on the side of the big battalions, and the little ones that overthrow them and then swell. What are its causes and lost causes to people too mired in poverty and struggle to afford them -- yet fated to be used by them?

As the start of a multivolume work, ''The Last Roundup,'' ''Star'' is still being born and not entirely out from placental intention and into its own defining life. It does not altogether settle in the judgment, apart from the obvious one: that it is big, greedy and a prodigy. In many respects it magnificently masters the reader; one respect still held out is whether it will come to master itself.

''Star'' brilliantly depicts the worlds through which Henry moves: the first, the near-medieval hardship of his scrabbling Dublin childhood; the second, the dramatic and ethical complexity of his armed service under Michael Collins. Then there is Henry himself: not what he sees and does but what he is. Doyle balloons him from grit-sharp, fiery-tongued picaresque into a mythic Everyman hero. The balloon flies and leaks.

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In novels such as Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, The Commitments, and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Roddy Doyle thrills readers with withering wit, modernist techniques, and the emotional and political realities of working-class Irish. His latest novel, A Star Called Henry, places those themes on a larger historical canvas, examining the fight for Irish independence in the late 1910s through the 1920s. While plenty of books and poems have documented the horror and lament of the 1916 Easter Uprising, and subsequent guerilla skirmishes between British troops and the rebels who eventually became the Irish Republican Army, none does it with the spirit, panache, humor, and heartbreak of Doyle.

Doyle's star is Henry Smart, a precocious youth born to a sad mother and a one-legged tough guy/bouncer/hitman, who characteristically beats his marks with his prosthetic limb. Henry, named for a brother who didn't make it past a year, is repeatedly told that a glimmering star was his late older brother. Doyle effectively uses the star as a symbolic device to represent hope in the face of poverty, violence, and the hardscrabble life of Henry. On his own from the age of three, Henry terrorizes Dublin, hurling profanity and insults while hustling for money. The kid is good charming his way into whatever he wants but lacks guidance and common sense until stumbling into a school at the age of nine to get an education. His foray lasts two days in the class of Miss O'Shea, before he is unceremoniously booted back to the streets by an angry nun. That set-up, the first third of the book, shows us the skills and anger that will eventually make Henry one of the most trusted and celebrated of the freedom fighters under Michael Collins.

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