A STAR CALLED HENRY
By Roddy Doyle
343 pages, $24.95
A good yarn has plenty of story threads in it, and "this one has, so," as the Irish would say. Roddy Doyle, author of "The Commitments," "The Snapper," "The Van" and other entertainments, has a hit on his hands with "A Star Called Henry," a novel about the life and times of Henry Smart.
Henry, born in a Dublin slum at the turn of the century, is the progeny of a one-legged, hard-drinking bouncer at a brothel, also named Henry Smart, and his 16-year-old bride, Melody Nash, daughter of old Hag Granny Nash.
"A Star Called Henry" is the ripping story of how Henry Smart raises himself and cares for his little brother, Victor. The younger child, in a scene worthy of Dickens, dies in his sleep of consumption, under a Dublin bridge.
Doyle's is the lastest addition to the tradition of picaresque novels that began with Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" 240 years ago. One needn't be prescient to expect Doyle's drama, the first of a planned trilogy about Henry (how's that for thinking ahead?), to be dolled up by Hollywood. Of course, Doyle never wrote a word that he didn't anticipate the "filuums," as they say in Dublin, to eat up.
I hold this against him in a sense; it seems a built-in deficit to one's art to be such a conniver after coin. But this novel is so filled with sheer imaginative brio and so based on careful research that one must gainsay, if not admire, Doyle's mischievous leeway.
There's a more serious deficit to this book, at least for the casual reader. It is the mixture of fiction and fact that makes the novel subversive of the truth. While the book can be read on more than one level, the introduction of real characters like DeValera, Connolly, the O'Rahily, Mick Collins, the Pearses, Arthur Griffin, the Countess Markievicz and many more, give the impression of historical accuracy. And more or less, Doyle's artistry maintains that composition, with the major exception of Henry Smart's insertion into the action. Henry is the equivalent of Woody Allen's 1983 film "Zelig," falsely interposed by the artist into one's recollection of major historical events.
An example: Henry explains his role as bugler at the burial of O'Donovan Rossa, the old Republican hero, in Glasnevin Cemetery in 1915. He's talking to Michael Mallin, second in command at the General Post Office (G.P.O.) siege:
I'm not a bugler anymore, I'd told him. I'd played "The Last Post" at the grave of O'Donovan Rossa the year before. The history books will tell you it was William Oman but don't believe them: He wastucked up at home with the flu. Doyle also has Henry Smart describing the famous photo of the last man to surrender to the English in the 1916 uprising, "Dev," Eamon DeValera. Henry claims that the photographer, Hanratty, "a slithery little get . . . with connections to the Castle" (the English), moved his camera only slightly to remove Henry from the famous photograph of DeValera and his captors.
The book is a coming-of-age saga featuring the bloody dawn of the Easter Rising on Monday, April 24, 1916. The battle scene at the General Post Office is a great triumph of description for Doyle.
The squeamish reader should be cautioned that there is a long, graphic description of sexual activity between Henry Smart and Miss O'Shea, the teacher-rebel. Perhaps it is old-fashioned to some to mention the description of sexual activity scattered throughout the book. The response of some readers may be, "So what?" I mention it and the gratuitous killings of the Sinn Fein, the IRA, the Black and Tans and others, as a warning for those who would find the descriptions offensive.
"A Star Called Henry" refers to Henry's mother's pointing out a star in the sky to him when he was a small child. An earlier brother, also named Henry, had died. Melody never tired of pointing to that star, indicting where the dead child's memory shone down upon them. Henry recounts his mother's words: "There he is. . . . She wanted me to see him, and him, far away, to see me. Henry met Henry. She hoped we could be friends, that we could love each other. She smiled as I screamed."
Poor ruined mother. She sat in the rain, the hail, the heat. . . . Behind her, the damp, scabbed walls, the rotten wood, the wet air, the leaking, bursting ceiling. Decomposing wallpaper, pools of stagnant water, rats on the scent of the baby milk. Colonies of flies in the wet, crumbling walls. . . . We cried at the pain that burned through our sores. We cried for arms to gather and hold us. We cried for heat and for socks, for milk, and light, for an end to the itches that stopped us from sleeping. We cried at the lice that shone and curled and mocked us. We cried for our mother to come and save us. Poor Mother.
Such a life breeds revolution. Roddy Doyle's genius brings the Irish fight for independence -- "When the country was free, when the last Englishman was on a boat or in a box" -- home to a new turn-of-the-century audience.
Revolution always breeds excess. Be aware of it in this powerful new work.