By Jim Mulvaney
A STAR CALLED HENRY, by Roddy Doyle. Published by Viking 375 Hudson St., New York, N.Y. 10014. 343 pp. $24.95.
It’s easy to fall in love with Henry Smart. From his debut as the toothiest baby in all of Dublin, through his street urchin prepubesence all the way to full adulthood in the Irish Civil War, Henry is a charming character.
"A Star Called Henry" establishes Roddy Doyle as a world-class, serious novelist. The sentences sing as Doyle expertly weaves the fictional tale of the adorable Henry with the momentous events at the turn of the century. Doyle is no misty-eyed romantic and gleefully cuts the deified characters of the 1916 Uprising down to painfully imperfect human scale. When was the last time you saw Michael Collins portrayed as a coward who cheated at boxing?
Roddy Doyle has long ago established his credentials as a master storyteller. The Barrytown Trilogies had an out-loud laugh on nearly every page. The book whisked merrily through North Dublin’s gut-wrenching Irish social problems, including chronic unemployment, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy and alcoholism.
As he ventured out from the laugh-a-minute material, he teasingly confronted darker subjects, such as spousal abuse "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors." But Doyle was still more of a humorist than a "serious" novelist, a modern day Myles na gCopaleen.
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I don’t mean to sound elitist or suggest that there’s anything wrong with a book that leaves you laughing. But many writers yearn for a more esteemed calling. Doyle’s first stab at high art was "Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha," which won a Booker Prize. But even in that book, Doyle kept the smirk on his face was as big as the story. Who else in the world could make a reader chuckle over conversations between a lunatic child and the rotting corpse of his father?
This isn’t to say that "Henry" is dry or without preposterous moments. The tour of Dublin’s sewer system led by a one-legged man is uproarious. But this is a book in several planes, a serious piece of work that happens to be amusing.
The novel is set as a first person, historical romance. It opens in late 19th Century Dublin, where a simple-minded teenage girl named Melody Nash falls for a one-legged drunk named Henry Smart. Their union produces children who die, but along comes child Henry in 1901, dragged from the womb by a midwife onto a swaddling made of the Freeman’s Journal newspaper.
"I was the big news, a local legend within hours of landing on the newspapers," he writes of his birth, going on to quote the local women. "’They say that he was born with the teeth in his head — she has to use the blanket off the bed for his nappy — A woman who seen him said he has enough meat on him to make triplets.’"
Henry’s size and strength are important as he hits the streets to fend for himself at age 5. His wild schemes to support himself offer a tour of pre-uprising Dublin, through the squalor that gives an insight of the causes of revolution. Here is how he describes a visit by the King of England (The tale starts with Henry shouting an obscenity at the king):
"Was I a tiny Fenian? A Sinn Feiner? Not at all. I didn’t even know I was Irish. I saw the procession from my perch on the lamppost and I saw the fat man at the center of it. I saw the wealth and color the shining red face, the mustache and beard that were better groomed than the horse, and I knew that he didn’t come from Dublin. I didn’t know that he was the King or that the floozy beside him was the Queen. . . . He looked like an eejit, yet thousands and thousands and thousands of people were cheering and waving for him. I was angry. He didn’t belong."
Henry survives childhood and reappears at the GPO Easter Weekend 1916. Doyle reminds us of the farcical reality of this historically significant event. He manages to swell the Irish heart with pride at the reading of the proclamation at the same time, showing how ridiculous it seemed at the time for a rag-tag bunch that practically went unheeded as they set about declaring a revolution.
As he proceeds through the revolution, Henry kills more people than Ernie O’Malley and is a better lover than Collins. Along the way, Henry falls in love with the mythic Kitty O’Shea and a touching subplot of a love story is told.
This is a chancy time for historical romance, for putting a novel into a period to teach the reader some history. The uproar over the biography of Ronald Reagan centers on the fictional character created by author Edmund Morris who reappears "Gump-like" over the course of the century.
Doyle puts Henry Smart into history similarly; but Henry’s presence doesn’t take away from the event. When the shooting starts at the GPO, you feel the history. When Collins sends Henry out to deal with an informer, you note the bittersweet flavor of political assassination.
A Star Called Henry isn’t like Roddy Doyle’s earlier books. It’s better.