The final part of Roddy Doyle’s trilogy plays out on the contested stage of Irish identity. By Christopher Tayler
Roddy Doyle’s The Last Roundup trilogy, which comes to an end with The Dead Republic, is a very different project from the dialogue-driven, bittersweet novels of Northside Dublin life that made Doyle’s name in the late 1980s and early 90s. At the same time, the later books are, among many other things, a kind of fictionalised cultural history of some of the earlier ones’ interests: the role of Hollywood films and American music in Irish self-invention, for example, and above all what Doyle sees as the sharply limited role for the urban poor in the Irish nationalist imagination. Drawing on extensive research, but also giving himself the freedom to handle reality more loosely in the manner of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Doyle set himself considerable challenges when he embarked on the trilogy, and in A Star Called Henry (1999), the first instalment, he met them with great aplomb.
Henry Smart, the central character and narrator, begins his long life in 1901, the son of a one-legged brothel-bouncer/hired killer and a wasting, soon-to-be-alcoholic mother. Portents mark his birth, and in spite of a childhood spent scavenging for food in the Dublin streets, he grows into a strapping, quick-witted young man. His irresistibility to women and knack for showing up at historic events give him a resemblance to Harry Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser’s imperialist antihero. But Henry, though self-serving, is a more idealistic figure, who hopes to build a better society even as he’s shagging on a bed of stamps in the GPO during the Easter rising. Taking him through the Irish war of independence, A Star Called Henry tracks his gradual disillusionment with the new power-brokers, who don’t wish to disturb the top-down social structure. He ends up on the run from his fellow gunmen, having beaten to death with his father’s wooden leg a big-shot gangster turned respectable politician.
Oh, Play That Thing (2004), the second instalment, follows Henry to Ellis Island in 1924 and through a series of adventures in the US. Impressed by the “consumption engineers” of the New York advertising business, he sets about reinventing himself as an all-American hustler. After some Runyonesque run-ins with Manhattan gangsters, and a small-town interlude in the company of a self-improving female grifter, he washes up in Chicago and lands a job as Louis Armstrong’s right-hand man. Doyle puts on a good show of stylised jazz-age language, and more or less gets away with using Armstrong as a character, but the structural weaknesses of his long-term plan start to show. Miss O’Shea, Henry’s inscrutable wife, appears and disappears at the novelist’s convenience, and – perhaps in the interests of reintegrating Henry into Irish history later on – such events as the depression and the second world war are treated in perfunctory fast-forward.
The Henry who steps back on to Irish soil at the start of The Dead Republic is a sadly diminished figure, missing a leg and convinced that his wife and children are dead. He also suffers intermittently from memory loss, which gives the early episodes a bleached, Beckett-like feel but eventually raises the suspicion that his losing track of time is merely another fast-forwarding device. The first third of the novel deals with his return to Ireland as part of John Ford’s entourage: having scooped Henry up from the Utah desert, the great director has promised to use his life story in the movie he’s putting together, The Quiet Man. Henry is enraged when this John Wayne vehicle turns out to be a serving of tourist kitsch, though he was warned of Ford that “no one is as sentimental as the Irishman who was never there in the first place”.
Next, the scene shifts from 1951 to 1974, when Henry is injured by a UVF car bomb. The intervening years are quickly disposed of: our hero has settled in a village to the north of Dublin and become the janitor in the local school. After the bombing, the Provisional IRA begins to take an interest in him, seeing him as a long-forgotten hero of the struggle for independence. Once again, Henry finds himself a half-willing collaborator in a conscious effort to reshape his life story to someone else’s notion of Irishness.
This theme – Henry’s past as a malleable prop on the contested stage of Irish identity – staples the two parts of the novel together. Ford boasts of giving Americans the history they wanted in his westerns, and the novel views the Provisionals’ complex claims to legitimacy – the theologically elaborate lines of descent from the “true” republic – as an equally powerful, equally bogus piece of myth-making. Unfortunately, though, these tussles over the nature of Irishness don’t help Doyle to structure the story as neatly as he was able to in A Star Called Henry. In order to accommodate the hunger strikes, Thatcher and the first steps towards a political settlement, he’s forced to whisk his increasingly decrepit central character through several decades at a breathless clip, falling back on further entrances and exits by the protean Miss O’Shea and Henry’s adult daughter to keep up any semblance of narrative tension.
Over-schematic and under-planned, it’s a disappointing end to Doyle’s ambitious trilogy, though the improvisatory quality of Henry’s wanderings often generates powerful individual scenes. Doyle also writes well about slow-moving social changes, especially as seen from the school Henry works in, and just about succeeds – at some cost to plausibility – in keeping the pages turning.