Too Smart By Half

Issue section: 
(290)

Review of 'Oh, Play That Thing' by Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape £16.99

If the first part of this trilogy, A Star called Henry, was the finest book Roddy Doyle has written to date, then Oh, Play That Thing is surely the bravest, and a worthy follow up. Doyle's early successes, like The Commitments, The Van and The Snapper, were brilliant at capturing the world around him. The Dublin he grew up in, taught and lived in, was brought to life on every page. He was brilliant at observing the little quirks of everyday living and turning them into wonderfully told stories.

A Star Called Henry stepped outside this tradition in the sense that it was not based on Doyle's own lifetime or life experiences. Instead it was based in the tumultuous period in Irish history that began with the Easter Rising in 1916 and culminated in the bitter civil war of 1922. The work was still based in Doyle's own city of Dublin, and in a historic period which he was surely familiar with, and in which members of his family had participated.

Oh, Play That Thing steps completely outside this familiarity. Henry Smart, having survived the civil war, has fled to America. The book starts with his arrival at Ellis Island, and charts his journey of escape from his past, and his attempts to build a new life. Doyle does not go for the easy option of the Irish emigre living in Irish America. Instead Henry, desperate to avoid being recognised, lives among East European emigres and Italian hustlers. He finds some success as a sandwich board man, initially carrying the boards himself but then employing youngsters to do it for him. He begins to be sucked into the world of bootleggers, speakeasies and violence. Eventually forced to flee New York, Henry winds up in Chicago, and ends up being Louis Armstrong's 'white man' - who protects him from those who would own him.

If this sounds an unlikely scenario it matters little, for Doyle uses the relationship to paint a picture of the racism of the US of the time. We witness the segregation, the taboo sexual relationships, the light skinned young black woman who can pass herself off as white but eventually revolts against her own dissembling, the doors that might be open to Armstrong but are closed to most of his fellow black men and women. Even Armstrong with his growing celebrity, is never allowed to forget his 'inferiority', whether it be from the white moneymen who would own him or the white clubbers who dance to his music.

The music plays a huge part in the book. Bringing music to life on the pages of a book is not easy, but Doyle does precisely that. You can almost imagine yourself in the hottest clubs listening to the hottest music of the time. Clearly Doyle would have loved to have been there. The fact that he wasn't makes his recreation breathtaking, and certainly made me want to go and listen to the early music of Armstrong. Doyle does not settle for merely recreating atmosphere. For this tale is one of endeavour, survival, love and history all rolled into one.

Henry's adventures take us through prohibition, the growth of the mob, the Wall Street crash, the Great Depression and, as Henry moves west, we hit the dust bowl, the world of migrant labour, of boxcar hobos and rural poverty.

Meanwhile Henry's past never quite leaves him behind. His efforts to put Ireland and all the mess he left firmly behind him never quite succeed. He yearns for a certain part of his past, in the form of the fantastic 'Miss O Shea' but, as for the rest, it is best left buried yet never quite is - it remains a haunting fear of the imagination, but with real life foundation.

I have to say that when I started the book I found the style and rhythm distracting, and feared that style might obscure content, but Doyle is too good a writer for that, and once I settled into the book I found it almost impossible to put down. I am now impatiently awaiting the third part of what is thus far a masterful trilogy.