The ancient Irish believed a poet could kill with his satire.
There's a memory of that belief in Roddy Doyle's deeply engaging comedic novels in which the poetry of everyday urban Irish speech is used to deal fatal blows against injustice and hurtful illusion. In his Barrytown Trilogy — "The Commitments," "The Snapper" and "The Van" — chronicling events in the life of the fictional Rabbitte clan, Doyle's brilliantly realized dialogue was hurled hilariously against the wall of social indifference with which contemporary Dubliners had surrounded the working-class neighborhoods and suburbs of their city's north side, where he has lived and taught for many years. His Man Booker Prize-winning "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" demolished comforting distortions of childhood.
Now, with "The Dead Republic," the larger purpose behind his more recent trilogy — titled the Last Roundup — comes clearly into view, and it's no less than a smackdown of popular culture's contribution, particularly as refracted through the lens of Irish American sentimentality, to the mythology of Irish nationalism. Doyle's is hardly the first hand to work this crooked intellectual furrow, but no one before him has made the excavation even half so entertaining. The genius of this author's novels and stories — like those of every great comic writer — is that though they have conscience and purpose, they're still howlingly funny. "The Dead Republic" has more than its share of audible laughs per page, in part, because one of the major villains of the piece is the iconic, beloved Hollywood director John Ford.
The previous volumes in this series — "A Star Called Henry" and "Oh, Play That Thing!" — introduced the protagonist Henry Smart, child of the infamous turn-of-the-20th-century Dublin slums, who takes up the gun and joins the Easter Rising against British colonialism in 1916. (It says something about our Henry that he manages to have sex on a bed of discarded stamps in no less legendary surroundings than the besieged General Post Office.)
After the rebellion's failure, Henry takes part in the Anglo-Irish War as one of the assassins in Michael Collins' "squad." He marries the haunting — in several senses — Miss O'Shea, a fellow rebel, then loses her, though not for the first time. He takes the losing Republican side in the civil war (naturally) but runs afoul of his comrades and has to flee to America. It's the 1920s, and there he consorts with mobsters on Manhattan's Lower East Side, takes up with the young Louis Armstrong in Chicago and renews contact with Miss O'Shea after he unknowingly breaks into her house.
Together with their two children, they end up riding the rails during the Depression but are separated again by a boxcar accident that costs Henry a leg.
Henry, disillusioned and despairing, has crawled off into the desert of Monument Valley to die. Henry Fonda, who is there filming "My Darling Clementine" under Ford's direction, leaves the set to relieve his bladder and ends up urinating on the prostrate Henry. Ford, who in Doyle's account is not only the sadistic taskmaster of actors that some film histories have made him but also the worst sort of sentimental Irish American, is immediately smitten at the prospect of having a real Irish Republican Army man in his entourage.
He also convinces Henry that he means to bring his life story to the screen — the "real" story of Ireland's fight for freedom. Over the course of months, he relentlessly interrogates Henry about his life and exploits with a series of preposterously leading questions, the responses set down by an ever present secretary, Meta.
" '—You killed men, right?'
" '—Tell me about one of them. Ready, Meta?'
"She was behind us, sitting on an Indian blanket, under her huge hat, I couldn't see her eyes.
" '—Ready,' she said.
" '—I shot him in the back of the head,' I said.
" '—You had to have a reason for killing the guy.'
" '—I did,' I said—'I was told to.' "
The film that eventuates, of course, is "The Quiet Man," which to Henry's further disillusion and murderous rage has utterly nothing to do with his life — indeed, nothing whatsoever with the Ireland he knows. The outset of "The Dead Republic" finds him back in Ireland for the filming and resolved to kill Ford. How that works itself out, we won't spoil here.
There's also one of Doyle's acidly ironic subtexts at work here, because film buffs and close students of Irish letters may recall that Ford, in fact, did employ a famous ex-IRA commander and writer, Ernie O'Malley, as an advisor on the 1951 film starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. (O'Malley, for those interested, was the author of two remarkable memoirs, "On Another Man's Wound" and "The Singing Flame." They are two of the best-written accounts of irregular warfare ever written.) O'Malley, by the way, heartily approved of "The Quiet Man," since he thought it was a good advertisement for the idyllically rural Ireland the government of his ex-comrade Eamon De Valera hoped to promote with its disastrous economic policies.
By the 1950s, Henry is back in Dublin and working as a school custodian and gardener. He reconnects with the mysterious Miss O'Shea and, when he is injured by a bomb set by Ulster Loyalists, his now-fashionable past comes to light. He's taken up by the Provisional IRA as the reluctant embodiment of their version of the historic struggle. What follows from that is yours to discover, but suffice to say it's both funny and unexpected.
And suffice to say that Ford is said to have agreed with the character in "Liberty Valance" who observed that "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Doyle has, by the most entertaining route possible, reached an opposite conclusion.