Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Roddy Doyle's Latest Novel

I can’t imagine Louis Armstrong driving a car. I’ve listened to his music all my life, I’ve seen him on TV, I’ve read enough books to picture what he looked like on stage, in the studio, eating, sleeping, talking with friends, smoking reefer, even having sex (with some discrete fades to black in my imagination). But, driving a car, a mundane action that all of us do, is beyond my comprehension. The Louis Armstrong of my mind never performed any mundane actions.

Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, “Oh, Play That Thing,” includes scenes of Louis Armstrong driving. They’re actually rather comical scenes, with Armstrong running all over town trying to dump his no longer useful friend at a place he can at least be welcome. He hits a woman with his car, as if his eyes can’t even picture the action of driving, either. Don’t worry. We aren’t faced with the image of the 20th century’s most important musician being charged with manslaughter. She’s fine, though he comes close to hitting her a second time.

Doyle is still most famous for having written “The Commitments,” from which the motion picture of a few years back was made. But, I’m better acquainted with his previous novel, “A Star Called Henry,” of which “Oh, Play That Thing” is the sequel. In the last book, we followed the complicated life of Henry Smart from birth through his 24th year, and found him participating in the chaotic convulsion that was the Irish Republican revolution. Henry killed, not necessarily out of conviction, but because it was the role he filled most easily. He was a character who could not be resisted, so naturally enough, Doyle kept telling his story.

Unfortunately, Henry Smart makes a far more believable representative of Irish history than American. Part of that, I realize, is my lack of familiarity with the Irish experience. I know a heck of a lot more about bootleggers, jazz, and the Depression than I do about the origins of the Irish state at the end of World War I. So, I can spot the coincidences, the unbelievable bits, the Zelig moments which seem forced just for the sake of having something famous come into Henry’s life.

That doesn’t mean this novel is unreadable. It’s actually a lot of fun in a lot of ways, especially once you decide to toss realism out the window. If Henry Smart and Louis Armstrong are going to turn to a life of crime, breaking and entering into Chicago mansions to steal silverware which can be easily fenced for cash, why shouldn’t they very soon stumble into a home where Smart’s long estranged Irish wife and daughter happen to be employed as live-in help?

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first two sections of the book are the strongest. Henry’s attempt to establish himself as a plucky young entrepreneur, with a business in advertising via sandwich boards, in the New York City of 1921 is both riveting and hilarious. It’s not his fault, exactly, that he gets involved in the death of carrier pigeons owned by Owney Madden, one of the most notorious gangsters of that day and place, but there it is.

Escaping to a small town with a character mostly known as “The Half-Sister” (not his, but that of another minor character), the story shifts to detailing confidence games. She is a fortune teller, he is a water seeker and dentist. With no experience behind him, Henry applies the same pluck which made him so successful as a hit man, and pulls teeth with wild abandon. Oh, this section is enough to make you sick, but it’s really, really funny, too.

Then comes Chicago, and suddenly we’re out of the realm of Henry Smart making his way in the world, and into the realm of an Irish immigrant falling in love with African-American life and music. Yeah, maybe it could happen, but I doubt it. Too often, Henry’s descriptions of Armstrong’s music read too much like the work of modern jazz critics, and not at all like the less intellectual readings of those on the scene at the time. As brilliant as “West End Blues” is in retrospect, I’m not convinced anyone on the scene knew it was so much better than everything else that had come before. Of course, Henry becomes Armstrong’s right-hand man, the White man he needs to give Armstrong a chance to move tentatively into the white world.

From there, the coincidences flow, and Henry becomes re-involved with characters from “A Star Called Henry” and the earlier sections of this novel. Reunions and loss are the stuff of Henry Smart’s life. (For those who remember the original novel, there are even ironies such as Henry ending up losing a leg while saving his son from death; Henry’s father only had one leg.) Eventually, he ends up ready to die, only to find himself at the feet of a great American mythmaker. We’re supposed to see Henry’s American experience as leading inexorably away from control of one’s life as an original on to becoming a part of the great American imagination of itself as something big, huge, constantly expanding, and good. But, we know it’s a myth, we know his role here is to be near death portraying a dead man in a story improving on the reality of the past.

(I once said I’d always be a spoiler in these reviews, but I can’t bring myself to name the mythmaker. How about I just say he’s a famous director of Westerns?)

I’ll read more Doyle, but I hope he doesn’t return to Henry Smart. I don’t think this character could do anything else; he barely makes it to the end of this book, by which time he’s close to 50 years old. We’re already close to a historical Forest Gump, albeit one with some street smarts. Unless Doyle intends to have Henry meet Gump, let’s leave any plans for a third volume on the drawing board.

By the way, there is a fascinating bibliography at the end of all the books Doyle referenced to assemble the accurate details of American life in all the places depicted here. I think there are several listed here I’d like to check out myself, in addition to the half-dozen I’ve already read.

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