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A Star Called Henry
By Roddy Doyle
Well, it’s a long way from Barrytown. Or maybe
not as far as you might think, since Henry Smart, the rumbustious
hero of Roddy Doyle’s new novel, a man born in 1901 whose life therefore
runs concurrently with that of the century, could well be the grandfather
of one of those kids in The Commitments. But he is even more
disenfranchised than they, and the poverty of his childhood makes
the world of Angela’s Ashes look like sheer bloody luxury
by comparison. In one particularly memorable scene, the young Henry
and his younger brother Victor catch rats by smearing their arms
and hands with soup made from boiling baby rats, and then sell them
on to betting men. These punters:
...paid me extra to put my hands into the sack.
I always did it but
I wouldn’t let Victor risk his fingers. I loved
watching the faces
of the men around the pit; I read their contempt,
pity and admiration.
I stared at the rich ones, the ones I knew already
felt guilty about
being there, with the worst of the scum of the
slums; I’d stare at
them as I sank my hand into the sack and felt
the fury in the rats’
backs and the men would look away. I’d let them
see the little boy
being asked to maim himself for their entertainment.
As you can gather, while the Barrytown trilogy
presented a somewhat sentimental view of urban working class life,
which in this reviewer’s opinion often seemed little more than an
updated version of the ‘rare ol’ times’ codology, here we get the
real thing, and any mawkishness is quickly undercut by another kick
in the teeth. Not that there aren’t huge swathes of humour running
through A Star Called Henry, but the hue is decidedly blacker
than before. In effect, what we have here is a judicious blend of
light and shade, The Snapper crossed with The Woman Who
Walked Into Doors, or The Van with Family, and
delivered all in one.
Henry’s father, also Henry, was a doorman at Dolly
Oblong’s brothel, and also settled scores for her partner, the mysterious
Alfie Gandon. He obligingly bumped off Gandon’s enemies, preferably
with a good clout from his wooden leg, and then got rid of the bodies
piece by piece in the rivers, streams and canals around Dublin.
His mother, Melody, was married at sixteen and had succumbed to
consumption and alcoholism by her early twenties. When she became
too sick to look after her children, they took to the streets. One
day Henry goes back to check on her, but she’s moved on. He never
sees her again. Then there’s Granny Nash, an omnivorous reader of
female fiction, and repository of family secrets. The depiction
of childhood here excels that in Doyle’s best previous novel, Paddy
Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
But it is in its radical beyond revisionist expose
of the shibboleths of the 1916 Rebellion, the War of Independence
and the Civil War, that the book stands out. Henry is present in
the GPO on Easter Monday (like all the best people), but as a member
of the Irish Citizen Army rather than as a Volunteer.
Jesus, I hated the Volunteers. The poets and the
farm boys, the
fuckin’ shopkeepers. They detested the slummers
- the accents
and the dirt, the Dubliness of them.
His mentors are Jim Larkin and James Connelly (who
teaches him how to read and write). He also manages to lose his
virginity in the GPO, with his ex-primary school teacher (he went
for two days) and future wife, Cumann Na Ban member Miss O’Shea.
This puts a whole new perspective on the Easter, ahem, Rising.
On a serious note, here is a novel that shows
how 1916 was, like the French Revolution, ultimately a bourgeois
affair, since very little changed for those who had nothing to begin
with. Towards the end a former rebel leader presents Henry with
his death warrant:
- Well, he said. -If you’re not with us you’re
against us. That’s the
thinking. And there are those who reckon that
you’re always going
to be against us. And they’re probably right.
You’ve no stake in the
country, man. Never had, never will. We needed
very soon now we’ll have to be rid of them. And
that, Henry, is all you
are and ever were.
In this reading of events, and in its acknowledgement
of the often forgotten number of Irishmen who joined the British
army, A Star Called Henry echoes Sebastian Barry’s The
Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, although perhaps it is
with Sean O’Casey’s jaundiced treatments of the time, and his use
of the demotic, that Doyle has most in common.
There are a couple of technical quibbles, such
as why aren’t we told how old Henry is and where is he when writing
the book, and how does he know so much about his parents’ courtship,
if he wasn’t there at the time and nobody told him about it? But
the best way to cope with these minor irritations is to close one’s
eyes and be swept along, since the ride is well worth it.
This is the work of a man who knows a thing or
two about human nature, and also about how the world works, and
is using that knowledge as a force for good. With his early books
he captured a wide audience, many of whom would not be regular readers.
In a sense they have grown up with him, and I sincerely hope he
keeps them. The blurb calls this, correctly for once, ‘a vastly
more ambitious book than any he has written before’, and at the
end of the day it is that very ambition which is what is most impressive
about it. It is, after all, only the first instalment of a projected
trilogy, The Last Round Up, and Henry is still only
twenty when it concludes, and Liverpool bound. I can’t wait for
Volume Two. With its wonderfully well integrated and unshowy use
of historical research, and its wealth of detail and marvellous
descriptive passages, its anger and exuberance, this is one of the
most important novels written by an Irish writer in the past 30
or 40 years, a major achievement and an instant classic.
Nice one, Doyler. Or, as they used to say in Barrytown,
First published in Books Ireland