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Monday, February 16, 2009

A Star Called Henry

Reading Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry right after Eureka Street may have been misguided. Doyle's work takes place much earlier in the twentieth century than does Eureka Street (indeed, the titular character is born in 1901) and the difference in historical viewpoints may have been too wide to overcome. McLiam Wilson writes from the standpoint of the modern Irishman, weary of the fighting and no longer able to see the differences that cause others to bomb their fellow man's homes and workplaces, whereas Doyle is trying to take us back to nearly the beginning of the struggle, when these same differences were so stark and obvious that it was necessary and yet dangerous to pick a side.

Curiously, then, Doyle's novel still tries to have it both ways, a fact which confuses the reader and harms the novel, preventing it from having the depth and significance it could have had, or the light-hearted Irish whimsy so prevalent in Doyle's Barrytown trilogy.

Henry Smart is the healthiest baby ever born in the slums of Ireland, which helps explain how he makes it through the disease and poverty which plague his family and all of Dublin. Henry's mother is barely present in the novel, except to give birth to many short-lived children. Henry's father, the first Henry Smart (our protagonist is actually the third, as a dead son was previously named Henry) is a doorman/guard at a whorehouse who has a wooden leg which he uses to beat up unruly customers. The leg is also occasionally used to murder people a mysterious "Alfie Gandon" wants dead. The passages concerning Henry Smart Sr. are the best in the novel. In them, Doyle's ability to create unique and believable backgrounds for his characters shines through. It is unfortunate then that this character disappears so early in the novel, only to return as a topic of conversation much later.

After the loss of his father and the death of Victor, his closest sibling, young Henry Smart takes off on a series of adventures eventually leading to his active participation in the cause of Irish Republicanism. Henry is present at the Easter Rising and is shown to be known by all the major players (the history is obscure to me, but preliminary googling shows that it is accurate.) The book playfully suggests that Smart was always this close to historical notoriety, only to fade into the background of history.

Henry rises through the ranks, militarizing Irish farmboys and enjoying an impressive array of sexual conquests with women devoted to the cause (including an old schoolteacher of his devoted to the cause.) He also becomes something like his father, an assassin. Henry is presented with the name of a "spy" whom he then kills. In the middle part of the novel Doyle writes these scenes without special moral weight, Henry treats the killings as a necessary duty and nothing more. If anything, he seems to have a particular joy for killing cops.

It is only later in the novel, after escaping death both at the hands of the English and the Irish, that Henry decides that violence isn't for him, after all. However, by now, for the reader, it seems far too late. Henry's moral redemption seems cheap and an afterthought. Henry (and by extension Doyle)seems like one of those people who look back with longing on a bad habit, even after they have given it up.

Maybe this is unfair of me. I'm not from Ireland, and maybe in context the acts of violence undertaken by Henry and the actual historical figures of the novel would be more honorable than not. But if that is the case, then why would Doyle undercut the point by demonizing the IRA at all? If Doyle intended to condemn violence, in my opinion he should have done so more thoroughly and with greater conviction.

As to the writing, it was uneven. I feel that the incorporation of so much real history may have hampered Doyle. In the passages where he was free to invent as much as he wanted Doyle's prose shimmered and was lyrical, but in the other scenes it could get bogged down in detail. Also, the writing seemed intentionally obscure at times. It would take much too long to figure out what was actually going on, to no artistic purpose as far as I could tell.

A Star Called Henry is purportedly the first of a trilogy, although only two books have been published. The second, Oh, Play That Thing, sits on my shelf. It got terrible reviews compared to this novel, which is giving me pause, as is the fact that many believe Doyle will not actually ever write a third volume. As for this volume? It gets a 5.3 out of 10.

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