A Star Called Henry
It’s possible that Roddy Doyle is the finest Irish writer of his generation.
That’s a huge statement and one I’m in no real position to support. Nonetheless, I stand by it because Doyle never disappoints and progresses even as he sticks by his knitting. And his knitting is largely the Irish working classes of the 20th century.
While his name may be unfamiliar you may have unwittingly encountered his work. The Commitments, Alan Parker‘s 1991 hit film, was the cinematic version of a Doyle novel, as was The Snapper. Along with The Van those novels constitute what has come to be called the Barrytown Trilogy. What stands out in my memory about them is that they were almost dialog studies, page after page of dialog rendered with a fine ear to the rhythm and manner of actual speech. I have distant Irish relatives but it was Roddy Doyle who taught me what a fookin eedjiit is.
Doyle and I parted for some time and when I returned to the fold I discovered that the dialog, still wonderful, now lived and breathed within a larger context. In the Barrytown books I think the structure serves to underscore the critical point: the people being portrayed have nothing but what they create themselves. It’s all hard work and talk.
There’s still plenty of hard work in A Star Called Henry, but it’s of a different stripe. Building a republic, ridding your homeland of interlopers, building a life. It’s no less meaty than the struggles of a more contemporary working class. But the canvas has more Eugène Delacroix about it than before. Henry may be that favorite type of Doyle’s–the naturally intelligent man emerging from a background of almost total want–but there’s more to him than that.
Henry Star is a product of the lowest rungs of Irish society under British rule. We meet Henry at birth where he is given the name of a now dead, older sibling, his parent’s first child, by a father who thinks a proper act of naming can fill the gaping void of a dead child. My daughter is named after my departed brother, also a childhood death, and I assure you, there are some voids that can never be filled. Henry’s mother reacts by withdrawing, sitting on her front stoop, naming distant stars after her departed young ones. By the time she fades completely from the tale there are a goodly number of freshly renamed stars.
Her disappearance occurs after Henry himself, all of 6 or 7 year sold, removes himself from the family residence taking with him his younger brother Victor. There is almost constant motion in this novel. The family moves from one apartment to another, and never one that’s a step up the ladder. Mr. Smart, the peg-legged father who works as a bouncer at Dublin’s finest brothel, ambles and runs about, with a distinctive walk, an ability to pivot on his prosthetic leg like an owl’s head and a tendency to wield his false limb as a weapon.
Henry takes up a peripatetic existence himself, living as a street urchin with Victor, then with the rebels of the Easter Rising, then with the IRA. Along the way he has a few days of formal schooling, meets the (far older) woman that he will wed and builds his street smarts as he educates himself by reading.
This is one of those novels built into a historical period so there’s plenty of actual fact including real, historical figures. None of them come off terribly well, but what real human would when compared to an idealized historical figure? Clarke, Pearse, Connolly, Collins. They’re all here and Henry, for all his street smarts, is spun like a top by these guys who were playing a high stakes game for keeps.
To be Irish-American is not the the same as being Irish (as Maureen Dezell ably demonstrated in Irish America). So it doesn’t surprise me that this revisiting of history takes some turns that might not sit well with the sentimentally Irish crowd I know. That’s because the tale turns out to be of Henry’s eventual disillusionment with the whole mess, maybe even with the situation of being Irish. Not that Henry was ever a true believer. A survivor, Henry has been skimming since childhood and neither the quixotic determination of his wife nor the craven business and politics of the IRA leadership quell that. But in a situation like this there’s no middle ground possible. You can’t simply withdraw. If you’re not with us, you’re against us and there’s only one possible end.
I’ve always said I’m not good at symbolism but I don’t find it accidental that there are three major characters who help form Henry and who are almost characetures of Irish traits. His father is the archetype of the quick to anger, all-brawn bruiser, ever in flight. His grandmother, wandering in and out of the tale, muttering to herself like some mad combination of Shakespearean ghost and witch, is almost completely oblivious to her physical surroundings, her head forever in a book. His mother, receding incessantly into her grief, knits the two together even as she underscores just why the Irish quest for freedom was so hard and took so long.
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