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Trouble in midstream

Richard Eder, the former book critic for The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

To consciously set out on a trilogy is risky for a writer; the power may cut out along the way. Better, perhaps, to go book by book and see what turns up. Otherwise you can have a strong prequel with starveling sequels, a Chinese parade dragon with a lavish, fierce head and a straggling paper tail.

Five years ago with “A Star Called Henry,” Roddy Doyle launched a leveler’s countermarch through the Irish heroic. Its protagonist, Henry Smart, barely in his teens, stood with Padraic Pearse and James Connolly in the 1916 Easter Rising; went on to battle the British in the independence war; and finally, driven out by corruptions and murderous betrayals among his leaders, escaped to England.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 17, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Doyle review -- In a review of Roddy Doyle’s novel “Oh, Play That Thing” in the Nov. 7 Book Review section, the poet William Butler Yeats was cited as the source of a portrayal of Ireland as a “sow devouring its farrow.” This description should have been attributed to James Joyce, who wrote, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 21, 2004 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Doyle review -- In a review of Roddy Doyle’s novel “Oh, Play That Thing” (Book Review, Nov. 7), the poet William Butler Yeats was cited as the source of a portrayal of Ireland as a “sow devouring its farrow.” This description should have been attributed to James Joyce, who wrote, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”

“A Star” was a great lolloping book, grand and grandiloquent by turns. The grand, sometimes undermined by the grandiloquent, for the most part prevailed. It was a bitter scouring of the national legend that pretty much ruled Ireland for the next half-century and began to fade only when the country raised its sights beyond the Irish Sea and made a prosperous right turn to Europe.

Despite occasional epic soaring and a bothersome touch of magical realism, “Star” drew strength from two things. One was the vivid excitement of Henry’s exploits organizing the Republican resistance in the countryside. The other was the shock of his dark role as assassin, starting with the British and their collaborators but going on -- like Yeats’ Irish sow devouring its farrow -- to target his leaders’ political rivals. Henry flees when he is handed a list with his name on it.

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Doyle wrote out of a passionate engagement of his own. Not with the old battles -- he’s much too young to have known them -- but against the distorting effect they had for so long on the prosaic realities of Irish life. His splendid shorter novels, among them “The Commitments” and “The Van,” deal with the grit and wit of living hand-to-mouth in modern Dublin. And in its first blazing 80 pages, “Star” portrays a desperate urban poverty, circa 1910, with a grin and grimace that makes Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” seem like a product of the Irish Tourist Board.

Doyle’s engagement has thinned in “Oh, Play That Thing,” the second part of his intended trilogy. Set in the United States in the 1920s and ‘30s, the novel becomes a tourist in history instead of a native. “Oh, Play That Thing” takes up the story when former comrades track down Henry in England and he embarks for the United States. He carries sandwich boards in New York, organizes the other carriers into a small business, romances a woman claimed by the gangster Owney Madden and flees with her to upstate New York, where she practices palmistry and he bluffs his way as a water diviner and tooth puller.

When armed men turn up, he moves to Chicago, where he works for a while in the stockyards and haunts jazz clubs. He meets Louis Armstrong and becomes his confidante and traveling companion. Low on funds, they turn to a spot of burglary; breaking a window, he encounters Kitty O’Shea, the wife and IRA fighter he’d left behind in Ireland. He doesn’t know that she was sent to track him down, and from here on she plays a cloudy role -- loyal wife/betrayer, sow/farrow -- first fingering him to an IRA executioner, then fleeing to ride the rails with Henry through the Depression years.

After a while she leaves to become a “Saint of the Dispossessed,” holding up banks on behalf of the “Oklahoma Republican Army” and wafting into myth. He will be discovered, broke and shriveled in the desert sun, by the director John Ford, who gives him a part and plans to make a movie of his life. Henry is now 45 and it will be time for the third part of the trilogy. Or perhaps not.

The trouble with this book’s daisy chain of extravagances is not so much probability as need. Doyle is fascinated by three American phenomena: gangs, Chicago’s jazz revolution and rail-riding Dust Bowl itinerants. He has read a great deal about them. There is a rich and intelligently chosen list of 58 source books at the end. And clearly, as shown by “The Commitments,” he has a knowledgeable passion for popular music.

Still, Doyle is a visitor, if a keen one. There’s nothing wrong with this except that the mythical surges, the comedy swelling into epic, don’t suit the visitor role. His Henry is not simply a picaresque figure, a hyperactive Zelig present at all the big moments. He helps them happen; he is a Paul Bunyan imported from the Irish wars but -- with all respect to jazz, mobs and the Depression -- one who has no real forests to cut. Nor does Kitty in Chicago, whatever she was in Ireland, make much of a Big Blue Ox.

In “A Star” there was much arbitrary arranging, and the figure of Henry was sometimes gassily distended. But that served in part to give flamboyance to Doyle’s driving purposes, sometimes even by parodying them.

Once in a while these purposes pop up in “Oh, Play That Thing.” About to flee Chicago from a new set of mobsters -- this is before the Irish gunman shows up -- Henry assures Kitty that he’ll be back soon. Unlike the IRA, he tells her, mobsters can’t afford to hold a grudge for too long:

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“They’re out for us, for a while. Then they get on with business. They give up. There’s too much to do. It’s a big place, all sorts of money to make. It’s not weakness. But it’s not personal. After a while, they’ll lose interest. They’ve no memory here. It gets in the way of progress.”

This is a welcome pinprick in Doyle’s balloony flight across 1920s and ‘30s America. Mainly, though, it’s his wicked dismissal of Irish irreconcilability gone stale, of heroics turned to lead in the history of these same decades. *


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