Jul 26, 2010

Monkey droppings - The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle

The Monkey leisurely finishes an epic trilogy.

And speeds through a review.

The monkey enjoys contrast.

The Dead Republic
by Roddy Doyle (2010)
I'd cycled every inch of every lane of this country. I'd lobbed bombs from most of the ditches. Bullets had slowed me down, but nothing had ever stopped me. Thirty years ago. Only thirty years. It wasn't a lifetime. I looked at my hand, at yellow, knuckled bone. The hand had once held guns and women. I closed my fingers and felt nothing.
I used to be heard. My eyes used to kill.
Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Following young Henry Smart as he becomes a key player in the Irish Citizen Army in the early 20th century, Doyle's novel was a key departure from his until-then usual, more intimate style, and was a literary triumph in every respect.

Its follow-up, Oh, Play that Thing, followed the wisened Henry to America, on the run and completely alone. Doyle had some great fun leaving Ireland and playing with the glories of the Jazz Age, especially when he somehow joined up Henry to Louis Armstrong. At the finale, Henry was older, very tired, and short one leg. His wife, the estimable Miss O'Shea (no name ever supplied nor needed), had been trapped on a train with his children as they rode the rails, and Henry had slipped beneath the wheels and was left behind. Oh, Play that Thing is deeply enjoyable, a romp and a half, but somehow doesn't linger nearly as long in the mind as Star. And its emphasis on Henry's acquaintance with various famous figures in history sometimes gave the book the air of a highbrow Forrest Gump.

The Dead Republic, Doyle's final volume, splits the difference. Doyle completes his Last Roundup trilogy by reuniting Henry with Ireland, and brings to a close Henry Smart's literary bildungsroman in often high style.

The book opens with Henry on the set of John Ford's classic motion picture The Quiet Man. Ford has somehow become convinced that Henry's story should be filmed; Henry sees it as another thing to do, and only goes along with the scheme when it becomes apparent that he could possibly return to the land he fled in fear for his life. Anyone who has actually seen The Quiet Man can attest that the end result is hardly the story of Henry, fictional character or not.

The opening third, much as the whole of Oh, Play that Thing, is the weakest element of The Dead Republic. Henry's exploits among the famous are inherently fun, but never truly memorable. It's only when Henry travels back to Ireland, to witness and again become a part of the political strife decades later, that the novel begins to soar to Star's heights.

To be sure, it's hardly a perfect novel, even at its best. Henry's irascibility as he gets older is wonderfully done, but the plot often appears too slight to support his heft. Henry feels shoehorned into the political machinations of the time, whereas in Star the plot and Henry were organically connected. Perhaps this is intentional on Doyle's part; Henry has no desire to rejoin with elements of his past, and goes along with the plans of others rather unwillingly. But even so, Republic sputters when Henry meets up with his past, especially at one crucial point; frankly, Henry's reunion with one particular character completely beggars disbelief, even topping the desperately loopy reunion in Oh, Play that Thing.

But it's Henry Smart that's the driving force, and on that sole element, The Dead Republic delivers in spades. Doyle's main strength as a writer has always been his ability to breathe life into his characters (I offer as proof the absolutely wonderful Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Woman Who Walked into Doors), and Republic spectacularly captures a man who is eternally on the fringes of history, both as active participant and passive tool.

Bottom line: when Doyle works with the plot, rather than the character, The Dead Republic suffers. But when it's simply Henry Smart, older, grimmer, and bursting with life, well, it's grand stuff, that.


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