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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:

-Why?

- 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 trouble-makers and

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, deadly.

First published in Books Ireland

 

 

 

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