A STAR CALLED HENRY

By Roddy Doyle

Viking. 343 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by James Hynes

The Irish Troubles of the early part of this century, from the failed Easter Rising of 1916 to the founding of the Irish Free State, had the good fortune to occur during the first great modern flowering of Irish literature. It's hard to think of a revolution, successful or not, that has been better chronicled by its witnesses and participants. Yeats, O'Casey and the short story writer Frank O'Connor lived through it and wrote about it directly; even James Joyce, who fled Ireland in part to get away from hothouse Irish nationalism, deigned to mention it grudgingly -- dismissively -- in passing. Since then, though, Irish politics has been unavoidable in Irish literature, in the novels of Jennifer Johnston, the short stories of William Trevor and the poetry of Seamus Heaney, as well as in the superb historical fiction of the Irish-American novelist Thomas Flanagan.

But so far Roddy Doyle -- who, along with Frank McCourt and John Banville, is one of the Irish writers best known in this country -- has avoided the subject. In a series of vivid, often hilarious and always unsentimental novels, from The Commitments through the Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Doyle has staked his claim as a leading voice of working-class Ireland. But only now, with this stunning new novel, has he used that voice to speak directly of Ireland's defining political drama, its fight to liberate itself from British rule. The result, A Star Called Henry, is not only Doyle's best novel yet; it is a masterpiece, an extraordinarily entertaining epic of the Easter Rising and the Irish Rebellion of 1919-1921.

Doyle is a modern master of the first-person narrative, and here that mastery reaches its apotheosis in the voice of Henry Smart. Born in 1901 in the slums of Dublin, Henry is cocky, smart-mouthed and (by his own frequent admission) irresistible to women. His one-legged father, also Henry, was a bouncer for a brothel and a hitman for a Dublin crime boss. The elder Henry's chief weapon, both as bouncer and hired killer, is his wooden leg, which he can pull off in a flash and wield as a club. At the end of the novel's outrageous and bitterly comic first section, his father's leg is Henry's only patrimony.

What follows is the political and moral education of an assassin. The novel's second section is a set piece of jaw-dropping intensity, Henry's thrilling, hilarious and finally tragic account of his part in the rebel defense of Dublin's General Post Office during the Easter Rising. By now Henry is a rather opportunistic and cynical member of the Irish Citizens Army, having been rescued from the streets by none other than James Connolly, the Scottish socialist who was one of the leaders of the Rising. Henry's account of the four days inside the GPO is an unforgettable story of blood, bravado, murderous naivete, more blood, vicious Irish wit and even sex, as Henry and Miss O'Shea, a member of the Rising's women's auxiliary who later becomes Henry's wife, consummate their relationship on a pile of stamps in the basement of the burning Post Office:

"Her mouth was on my ear.

-- What if they came in now, Henry?

-- Who? I said. -- The other women?

She grunted.

-- Pearse and Plunkett?

She licked my ear.

-- The British?

-- Oh God.

-- The Dublin Fusiliers?

-- Oh God.

-- The Royal Norfolks?

-- Yes.

-- The Royal Irish Rifles?

-- Yesss."

Henry's voice throughout, passionate and sardonic all at once, is one of the chief virtues of this novel; another is the fact that, against all expectation, Henry starts out life streetwise with a vengeance and becomes less cynical as the novel progresses. After the failure of the Easter Rising, and the execution of Connolly and the other leaders, Henry is rescued again by Michael Collins, the leader of the subsequent revolution, and the man who, for better or worse, invented modern guerrilla warfare (Collins was played by Liam Neeson in Neil Jordan's rather lugubrious film on the same subject). As one of Collins's chief operatives, Henry becomes at once more idealistic and more vicious, riding about Ireland on a stolen bicycle and murdering Irish policemen and British intelligence agents, often with his father's wooden leg.

Make no mistake about it: Henry Smart is a tremendously appealing narrator, full of charm and wit and sly insight, who also happens to be a cold-blooded killer, sometimes in the interest of the cause, sometimes not -- he's the Irish Tony Soprano. Indeed, the chief triumph of this novel, one among many, is the slow dawning of Henry's conscience, but only after he's killed so many men that even Henry cannot remember the number. Combined with Doyle's wonderfully subtle and wholly unromantic understanding of Irish nationalism -- an understanding that might be summed up by Pete Townsend's "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" -- these twinned awakenings, political and moral, give A Star Called Henry the heft and depth of greatness.

Readers who don't instantly recognize the names Connolly and Collins (or Pearse, McDonough, McBride et al.) might find the novel slow going to begin with. And I'd be remiss as a reviewer if I didn't raise the possibility that Henry Smart is a classically unreliable narrator, inflating his role in these events to his own advantage. But Henry's, and the novel's, honesty about his personal predicament, especially in the later pages, as well as the energy, passion, intelligence and outlandish wit of the novel's author, are guarantees of the story's moral, if not literal, truth.

The only disappointment here is also a promise: A Star Called Henry is intended as the first of a trilogy, following Henry Smart's progress right through the 20th century; one very oblique reference hints at Henry's misadventures to come, in the gangland of Chicago. Three years ago in these pages, this reviewer, in a favorable review of Doyle's The Woman Who Walked into Doors, wrote that the novelist was one of those writers who do one thing well -- in his case, write vividly about the modern Irish working class. I take it back: Doyle's working-class point of view has turned out to be not a limitation but a sensibility, a lens through which he can focus on topics as particular as the love between a man and woman or as large as the political consciousness of a nation. Or, to put it more bluntly, this novel proves that Roddy Doyle can do it all: It's a rip-roaring, page-turning, blood-and-thunder entertainment, with the promise of two sequels, but it's a considerable work of literature as well, an impressive heir to O'Connor, O'Casey, and Yeats, compassionate, thoughtful, and wise.

James Hynes is the author of "The Wild Colonial Boy," a novel, and "Publish and Perish," a book of novellas.