Sunday, September 25, 2011

Roddy Doyle "The Dead Republic"

While you don't always get the chance to read a series of novels in the right order there's always a desirable sequence, and, as a corollary, an undesirable one.

I came to Roddy Doyle's trilogy about the life and times of Henry Smart through a passing reference to his role as Louis Armstrong's white man in a review of 2004's Oh, Play That Thing, hunted it down and, having read it, set off in search of A Star Called Henry.

Oh, Play That Thing worked well enough as a stand alone story with the back story that explained Henry Smart's hasty exit from Ireland efficiently filled in, and going from there to A Star Called Henry enriched that back story and provided ample explanation for someone's involvement with the antecedents of recent Irish Republican terrorist attacks.

It must be difficult for someone sitting around the cusp of the twenty-first century, back in that pre-GFC period when Ireland was still the Celtic Tiger and offered tax-free status to creative writers to grasp the awful realities of slum life in urban Dublin a century earlier.

Having read A Star Called Henry I was left wondering why anyone wouldn't have gone down the path that took Henry Smart from the Dublin slums to become the youngest participant in the Easter Rising and from there to assassin status in the revolutionary years from 1916 to 1921.

It's also obvious tthere are some people you don't want around after the desired result of revolutionary activity looks to be within reach, so I could understand why someone would be signing the hard man's death warrant, and, equally, why the hard man would be looking to make himself scarce.

Smart's flight across the Atlantic brings him right into the middle of the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, and while you could take issue with the likelihood of the detail, Smart's reunion with his wife, who happens to have also been his teacher and partner in terrorist action, provides the basis for a lively run through the thirties, culminating in the fall from a box car that costs Smart a leg and separates him from his family.

He's still doing it tough and sleeping rough when he crawls off into the desert to die, only to be resurrected at the end of Oh, Play That Thing when  a casual act of urination brings movie director John Ford into the equation and provides a starting point for The Dead Republic.

While it's possible to take issue with some of the detail up to this point things work well enough as a narrative to encourage the reader to suspend disbelief and accept repeated coincidences that seem, on the surface, to be far too coincidental to be based in reality.

Which is where the sequencing bit comes in. While the best sequence to read the trilogy is 1-2-3, my 2-1-3 spread over five or six years worked for me, and having gone 2-1 I was scanning the literary horizon for 3, which slipped by unnoticed a little over twelve months ago and probably appeared in the reviews section of The Weekend Australian within a week or two of Hughesy's giving it the flick pass.

I may well have passed over a hard copy without noticing on one of my infrequent bookshop visits but a Google a couple of weeks ago advised of the book's existence, and since there was a digital version in the Kindle store, here we are with a three-part story that runs through the later years of what would have been a remarkable life.

The story begins with Henry Smart's resurrection as 'IRA consultant’ as Irish-American director John Ford sets out to turn Henry’s story into a screenplay. He eventually does, though The Quiet Man, directed by Ford and starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, bears absolutely no resemblance to the details we know from A Star Called Henry.

The recasting of reality into something that will work on screen and at the box office forms the basis of conversations in which Henry recounts his story and Ford suggests cinematic and commercial alternatives that fluff up the romance, knock off the rough edges and recasts the narrative into sentimental Emerald Isle stereotypes.

Revisiting that back story has Henry setting out to revisit old haunts – the house in which he lived with former schoolmistress fellow revolutionary Miss O'Shea scenes of ambushes and avenues of escape before he lit out for the States to avoid being rubbed out by former colleagues.

As he becomes disillusioned with the trivialisation of his story, he beats up the director and abandons the set in the west of Ireland.

Henry settles into a Dublin suburb, working as a gardener, then as the janitor at a boys' school, where he intimidates over-zealous teachers who beat their students. He's a popular figure who's wary of becoming too well known until a bomb planted by Northern Irish Protestants explodes in 1974.

Injured in the blast, Henry becomes a Republican hero thanks to a journalist who writes a story full of inaccurate details accompanied by a photograph of someone else. The Provisional IRA, believing Henry was a member of the 1921 government, want to use him to drum up support for the republican cause in the north and as hunger strikers in Long Kesh begin to die, he's a valuable propaganda tool.

As was the case with Ford, we've got people who want to reshape his story for their own purposes.

Henry has more personal concerns which centre around the reunion with the woman who was his wife and the daughter he left behind. As a symbol of Ireland's struggle for independence and a focus for the Republican movement he knows he's a fraudulent symbol of the past as history becomes myth.

Henry is only too aware of the savagery that achieved independence and while he goes through the motions for his new masters he's disillusioned with continuing violence and unimpressed by the emerging reality.

As the culmination of an intriguing trilogy there is, at times, a sense of frantic tying together of sundry threads, and while some readers may have difficulty suspending the old disbelief (the reunion with Miss O'Shea definitely seems to be stretching it a bit too far) the recasting of a history of hardship and hardheadedness to justify the random violence of the Troubles gets skewered neatly here.

Henry Smart has been there and done that, and his reaction to the I.R.A. Provos who split from the moderate “official” I.R.A. reflects a remark from an elderly relative of an acquaintance with some Republican form and an Irish lilt to the voice. He's stuck, however, because the Provos and the Irish police have found enough about his past and his activities to ensure that he toes the party line.

Neatly entwining historical fact and fictional fancy, the three volume saga unwinds with an intriguing mix of stark detail, mordant black humour and presents Ireland, its nationalist ethos and its romance with America over the last century in a light that emphasises the tragedy that comes as revolutionary spirit is trivialised into institutionalised violence.

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