Roddy Doyle has written a dangerous book - and a historical masterpieceby prospect / November 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Roddy Doyle’s special talent is for speech which reveals the soul in a way that normal talk never does. Schoolboys (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha), battered wives (The Woman Who Walked Into Doors) and soul music fans (The Commitments) are all more or less contemporary figures baring their all. In his latest novel we have something new: a figure from the past. Henry Smart, in his street voice, tells us his story.
Henry, the son of a one-legged brothel bouncer-cum-hitman, was born in a Dublin slum at the start of the century. He grows up a garrulous and infinitely resourceful individual. Think of Orson Welles in The Third Man, add devastating good looks, and you will begin to have his measure.
Henry is befriended by James Connolly, who teaches him to read. (Like Doctorov’s fiction, this novel is dotted with real people.) Come Easter 1916, Henry is in the General Post Office (GPO) in the uniform of the Citizen’s Army. And in the middle of all the excitement (interestingly described, incidentally, which is saying something, given the familiarity of the terrain) Henry has an epiphany. The first of many.
The Volunteers, Henry realises, are catholic, mother-fixated, Anglophobic, stupid and petit bourgeois. They abhor the looters out on Sackville street and they scorn the shawlies who beat a path to the GPO door in search of the pensions of their men folk who are on the western front. The Volunteers, who cannot understand how poverty affects behaviour, see these women and their men as pro-British traitors. But then they would, wouldn’t they, given that the Uprising is for themselves-the catholic rural middle class-not the poor. This is what Henry understands.
After the surrender in the GPO, Henry miraculously escapes the Brits, goes underground and becomes a docker (one of the best parts of the book). He resurfaces in 1917 and, despite what he has understood, he allows Michael Collins’s charm to work its magic; he becomes embroiled again. He is sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He trains IRA volunteers. He is made one of the “Twelve Apostles” and stiffs dozens of spies for Collins (none of them “spies,” as it turns out, just men with minds of their own, whom the movement couldn’t tolerate). He marries a Republican woman of psychotic tendencies. When he can suspend thought (which he mostly manages to do) Henry is the classic amoral maniac…