By Ron Charles
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; C04
THE DEAD REPUBLIC
By Roddy Doyle
329 pp. $26.95
Roddy Doyle's trilogy about the fight for Irish independence in the 20th century exploded in 1999 with its incandescent first volume, "A Star Called Henry." Full of violence and blarney and harrowing escapes, the novel opens in 1901 with the birth of Henry Smart, who quickly grows into a ferocious killer and a hilariously voracious lover (with an ego as big as Dublin). Doyle had already garnered a broad audience with "The Commitments" (1987) and won a Booker Prize for "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" (1993), but with its audacious narrator and fiery take on Irish history, "A Star Called Henry" was, to my mind, his most powerful novel.
Unfortunately, the rest of The Round-Up trilogy hasn't maintained the parabolic trajectory of that first volume. In "Oh, Play That Thing" (2004), Henry Smart skirts his execution by fleeing to Jazz Age America, where he falls in with gangsters and bootleggers and signs on as Louis Armstrong's handler. It's as frenetic as ever -- "Ragtime" with an Irish brogue. But without the fight for national freedom to anchor Henry's life, the action seems to scatter rather than build.
Now, in the third volume, Doyle brings his Irish action figure back to the motherland to rest -- though not for long. At the opening of "The Dead Republic," it's 1946, and the Hollywood director John Ford is making that incomparable western "My Darling Clementine," when he discovers Henry near death in the desert of Monument Valley. It's an outlandish but perfectly apt encounter between two great Irish mythmakers, one who worked on celluloid, the other in blood. Like everyone else, Ford finds Henry irresistible and pledges to take him home and make an epic movie about his life. Having created America's romantic notions of the Old West, he's ready to tell the real story of Ireland's travails.
"I was an old man," Henry says, though he'll more than double his age by the time this novel ends. "The bullets and grief had caught up with me -- but I felt bright and new. We shook hands. Ford was an old man too; he understood. I looked up at the black-blue sky, at all the dead and wandering stars, and I shouted. -- My name's Henry Smart!"
Doyle spends the first third of "The Dead Republic" describing the on-again, off-again negotiations between Henry and the great director, and there are some amusing bits involving Ford's minions and Henry's tendency to hobble into hiding on his one leg. But it's a long, lax prologue, made more frustrating by Doyle's spotty narrative, which gives little sense of time or place and eventually arrives at the wholly predictable revelation that Henry isn't pleased with the sanitized script that Ford plans to shoot. (Only someone like Henry, who's never seen a talkie, would be surprised by Hollywood's homogenizing rewrites.)
Once the novel shifts to Ireland, though, it's on firmer ground. Henry moves to a town outside of Dublin, reacquaints himself with a country utterly changed and works as a caretaker at a boys' school. "It was boring," he admits, "but maybe freedom was supposed to be boring. . . . The quiet life was mending me." Rooted in a real place that Doyle knows well, the story finally starts to breathe as Henry goes about learning how to live a respectable life for the first time. Although he's in his 60s, he's happy climbing over walls and sneaking into places, particularly the home of an older woman who may be the love of his life. Now and then he'd still like to whack off the priest's head with a shovel -- old habits die hard -- but generally he behaves, becoming a phantom protector of the students.
Doyle doesn't leave Henry in peace, though, and there's a cruel symmetry in seeing the old, one-legged man thrust back into the long war he helped launch 60 years earlier. His days of hunting down informers are over, but soon enough he has a new, involuntary role as a piece of propaganda: The Provisional IRA needs living legends as much as it does dead martyrs, and with his alleged connection to the founding battles of the republic, Henry gets wheeled out at meetings and funerals to rally the faithful. "I was Moses," he complains with a certain degree of disgust, "someone who'd actually spoken to God. I wasn't a symbol: I was an old, rediscovered fact. . . . I was their walking legitimacy."
Doyle can conjure up the terror of the Troubles, the unnerving sense of surveillance and cross-wired loyalties, but in this novel he usually keeps the explosions and assassinations in the background. What interests him more as this trilogy concludes is the manipulation of national myths. Pubs are bombed, boys have their kneecaps smashed, and zealots starve to death in prison, but Doyle suggests these are merely props. What the factions are really fighting over is not control of territory but control of "what being Irish means." Margaret Thatcher becomes the monster the IRA needs her to be, and the world media inflate Irish nostalgia till it floats above all the facts on the ground. Henry, once the murderer who did whatever the cause demanded, finally sees peace up ahead, but it looks nothing like what he imagined.
Maybe it's inevitable that this complicated and subtle conclusion can't be as propulsively entertaining as Henry's days as a charming killer at the start of the 20th century. But "The Dead Republic" exacerbates these challenges to its own detriment, particularly for a book so dependent on two earlier volumes. The novel's pacing is erratic, stalling and jumping like a worn-out tractor. The romantic element of the plot falls into a coma from which it never recovers. And Henry remains such an elliptical narrator that the story constantly risks losing its drive and color. I'm as convinced as ever that "A Star Called Henry" is a classic of modern Irish literature, but unfortunately the trilogy it began isn't.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.