Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle

Has any novel ever looked so squarely into a mythologized past as Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, and shot it right between the eyes? In 1999 Doyle seized a moment when the darker, more unsettling realities of the last century of Irish history seemed to matter less than ever—as the old religions of independence and 85% mass attendance gave way to the boom-time rampant commerce of the Celtic Tiger—and wrote a book that’s as close to a Zinn-style People’s History of Ireland as any novel could be, a critical reality check for anyone who doubted that the Irish War of Independence had been fought ugly and won uglier.

Although A Star Called Henry was much more raucous picaresque than polemic, its position was crystal clear: The so-called Republicans won the war and misspent the spoils, establishing a free-for-some republic that still sold its poor down the Liffey, just like the old English order they had ousted. Granted, the sidelong glance at the then-roaring Celtic Tiger was barely even subtext; really, just the context in which emerged a book about a take-no-prisoners, working-class assassin who lived to kill for Ireland but refused to die for it when the men he’d helped put in power sold him out.

But the miraculous thing about A Star Called Henry was that it wasn’t really a book about politics, any more than it was a book about glorifying the Irish revolutionary heroes who people its pages. Henry Smart, who was bored by his second day on the hallowed ground of Dublin’s GPO in Easter 1916, and was riding his former teacher and future wife, Miss O’Shea, on a pile of stamps in the basement shortly thereafter, never paused to give much thought to the politics of revolution or Republicanism. But when it came time to take the revolution respectable and transfer power to a same-as-the-ould-boss Irish elite, Henry wanted no part of it, and became a marked man.

A Star Called Henry was as breathtaking a book as I’ve ever read simply because it never let up. Doyle landed every punch he threw, and it seemed as if the rain of blows would never end.

But it did. A Star Called Henry had been presented as the first book in a trilogy called The Last Roundup. (Two books later, with the impending publication of The Dead Republic, I finally know what that means.) Book two, Oh Play That Thing, showed up in 2004, and there was no mistaking that Henry Smart, the cheeky, badass interior monologist had survived his exile to the U.S., biting wit intact. But with a vast new country to conquer, it became clear that Henry had much less to do. (Spoiler alert.) He lit out for upstate New York and got laid a lot, which was always something he seemed to come to easily, even when he was a very young man. He hooked up with a young, before-he-was-Satchmo Louis Armstrong and became a sort of bodyguard to him. He found Miss O’Shea, improbably, when he broke into a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, Ill., reunited with her and their daughter Saoirse, and began to raise their family in the boxcars and Hoovervilles of Depression America. He became an amputee like his father when he lost his leg trying to save his son from falling under a train, and lost his family when he himself tumbled under the car.

By the end of the book Henry Smart had crawled into Monument Valley to die, only to find Henry Fonda relieving himself on him on the set of a John Ford movie. Ford resurrected him, determined that Henry Smart’s story would become the basis of his greatest film. The sad irony of Ford’s plan, though, was that A Star Called Henry had been the makings of a great film, but over the course of Oh Play That Thing—a book that would have made a disjointed film with a few great moments—Henry’s life had become much less film-worthy.

Henry’s tale and its teller seemed to have run out of gas; I’d spent years awaiting Oh Play That Thing, and months trying to track down an advance copy when I heard it was coming. But after I read it, I found myself fairly indifferent to the question of whether Doyle would ever round out the trilogy with a third book.

There’s no question that Doyle has kept busy in the meantime, and occupied himself well. Paula Spencer (2007) proved a gloomy but satisfying sequel to the magnificent Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and The Deportees (2008), a collection of short stories originally published in Metro Eireann, proved that Doyle had lost none of his wit, insight, or dextrous way with a tale. Best of all, both books (but especially The Deportees, which focused entirely on this theme) proved that Doyle was well at home writing about 21st Century Ireland—a country that had become, of all things, a land of immigrants entering rather than emigrants leaving—and representing faithfully (though usually comically) the hypocrisy and bigotry he saw manifested among the “native” Irish toward the Romanians, Nigerians, and others in the new immigrant underclass that Tiger/EU prosperity had drawn to the new ould sod.

The Dead Republic, the concluding book of the Henry Smart saga, due for publication in April, is about none of these things and all of them: What it means to call yourself Irish, and who gets to decide; the hypocrisy of a nation recently out from under the thumb of foreign rule retaliating with its own abuses and class stratification; the sanitization and oversimplification of the relatively recent Irish past by those who stand to profit from tidying it up; and the dislocation of a working-class hero and retired revolutionary in the complacent, middle-class, half-assed “republic” he unwittingly helped bring to life. In short, the relegation of early Irish revolutionary history to the Celtic mists with myth blithely supplanting fact, and what that means to an old revolutionary who's taken in by none of it.

This notion of mythology superseding history, of the abstract and vague and imagined replacing the concrete—and the perversion of Irish history, politics, and national identity that the myth engenders—is the prevailing theme that runs through all of The Dead Republic as it moves across two continents and sixty years of Henry Smart’s life. And Henry's insistence on the concrete over the abstract is arguably the theme that detours around much of Oh Play That Thing! and connects The Dead Republic directly to A Star Called Henry. One of the most memorable moments in A Star Called Henry came when Henry and his brother, as two illiterate gamins, went to school for their two days of formal education and the teacher—Henry’s future wife, Miss O’Shea—asked Henry for the sum of 2 + 2. He replied, “Two what?” “Two bottles,” she said. “What’s in the bottles?” “Porter.” “Four.”

In another instance, in one of the most mythologized moments of Irish history, the Easter Rising, as the looting begins, someone yells to Henry, “Don’t steal that! It’s Irish property!” Henry’s response: “It’ll still be Irish after it’s stolen!”

Henry applies the same no-shite logic years later in The Dead Republic when discussing Bobby Sands and the H-Block hunger strike protests of 1980-81: “I knew hunger all my life ... and it was never a fuckin' strike. Only the middle class could come up with starvation as a form of protest.” The fact is, Henry and Miss O'Shea weren't fighting for revolutionary ideals; they were fighting against poverty and starvation, and fighting to tear down a Dublin full of young men going to war for the king’s shilling in World War I because it was safer than staying home. In The Dead Republic, Henry himself questions whether he ever really hated the British or loved Ireland, or just hated where he came from and relished the opportunity to kill the people who put him there. This is a question that is never resolved in the book, but the ambivalence of Henry Smart—a man that mattered, subject of a rebel song sung by schoolchildren—says enough.

So to return at mid-century to a partitioned country where Republicanism had become a much more abstract and compromised notion—a country clearly in the making in 1923 when Henry fled under an execution order from the original architects of that compromise—was a shocking and sickening thing.

From the outset in The Dead Republic, everywhere but inside his own head, Henry Smart is more myth than man. When the book begins, Henry is the reluctant collaborator/scriptwriter on John Ford’s years-in-development “Irish” film, The Quiet Man. Even then we know what this film is going to turn out to be—Ireland as backdrop for a rosy-cheeked, red-haired romantic fantasy, sentimental shite with a well-choreographed fight—but Doyle compels us to watch the agonizing process of how the film failed to become the saga of revolutionary Henry Smart and his machine gun-toting wife, and the slow unraveling of that always-problematic idea. The Smart-Ford relationship is an ongoing, vitriolic, Socratic dialogue pitting Ireland’s real past against its mythic one, played out between two men who have little love for (or knowledge of) the Irish present.

The fact that Henry lets this relationship drag on for so many years signifies the essential problem with Henry Smart 3.0. I’m not sure it detracts from the verisimilitude or impact of the book; it simply prevents it from being the wild romp that A Star Called Henry was. In A Star Called Henry, Henry Smart was a badass for the ages, a boy-man whose relentless, piecemeal acts of raging defiance made him much more real and more heroic than any literary hero I can recall who was predisposed to grander acts and sweeter sentiments. For fuck sake—as Henry would say—my wife and I named our son after him (for the righteous, riotous, cheeky kid he was, not because he was a “star”).

Throughout The Dead Republic—except for a short, thrilling segment when he’s working as the caretaker of a boys’ school in suburban Dublin and concocting a plan to reclaim the real Republic a block at a time—Henry Smart is essentially a passive figure who endures what people do to him, more notable for his thoughts than his actions, and more for his resilience than his defiance. Henry applies most of his trademark wit and insight to recognizing when he’s being watched, used, manipulated, and deceived, whether by Ford, the Provos, the Guards, the Church, the Peace Process, or even in his muted relationship with a woman who may or may not be his long-lost Miss O’Shea (he believes it’s she, but grudgingly accepts her refusal to acknowledge it).

But recognizing what's being done to him rarely goes beyond knowing what they’re up to and giving them less than what they want from him. Part of this is his cynicism about what Ireland has become—the Dead Republic, as it were; at best a compromise, at worst an outright betrayal of the revolution he helped start but was prevented from finishing. Part of it is Henry’s doubt that he was ever a revolutionary at all—rather, simply a spat-on, shat-on hailstorm of rage from the slums of Dublin.

Whatever his small acts of resistance, the self-doubting, self-loathing Henry Smart of The Dead Republic is more than a little heartbreaking. This is a guy whose belief in his own invincibility and the inevitability of his own triumph made him a legend. Little did he know how little room the legend would leave for the man, and what the legend would become in the hands of others.

In a literary sense, the genius of A Star Called Henry was that it was a book-length interior monologue rendered entirely without other storytelling artifice or adornment, yet it was nonetheless a thrillingly plot-driven novel. The Dead Republic is much closer to a character study, a chronicle of the near-dissolution of Henry Smart amidst a post mortem for a republic gone wrong.

So, does The Dead Republic end The Last Roundup on a down note? Without question. Is it a satisfying ending anyway? I think so, because it’s true to the tell-it-like-it-is, “Day Two of the revolution and I was already bored” ethic of A Star Called Henry, even though the old man at the center of it all is devastatingly diminished. There’s a moment when Henry tries to straighten up to his full height and square off with John Ford, and remembers, for the first time in years, “that I was a big man.” This, from a guy who at one time could whack a Black and Tan with his father's wooden leg and have the leg re-holstered before the man hit the ground; a kid who knew that his eyes alone made him a ladykiller when he was ten years old, and for whom it was a short and direct journey from righteously indignant cocky kid to to swashbuckling, ragged, rebel hero.

But three books and a full century later he’s no ghost, and he’s no myth—in spite of all those who want to turn him into both. He’s Henry Smart. And he’s still too real for fiction.