The first of many pleasurable ironies in Roddy Doyle’s new novel, A Star Called Henry, is that its protagonist and narrator, Henry Smart, is not the “star” of the title. That distinction belongs to his older brother, also called Henry Smart, who died in infancy, and who his mother
believes has been taken home to God to live as a star in the sky. Our Henry hates that star and its prior claim to his name. He hates the implication that he is not good enough for God’s
celestial household. A representative for thousands of other starving children of Dublin’s poor, he is condemned to live here below, spiritually–and soon enough, literally–homeless.
The year of Henry’s birth is 1901, and A Star Called Henry is the first volume of a planned trilogy that, in the words of Doyle’s publisher, “will span the 20th century.” Doyle here parts from the skittish, dialogue-driven realism of his previous novels to try his hand at Irish epic, and he wields the style like a sword, with the power and grace of a master.
As the hero of a national epic, Henry is modeled on the warrior-hero of the ancient Irish Ulster cycle, Cuchulain. Cuchulain’s father was the god Lug of the Long Arm. Henry’s father (another Henry Smart–our hero is dogged by doppelgängers) is a lug, too, a whorehouse bouncer and a hit man for a powerful Dublin “businessman.” Instead of a long arm, Henry Sr. has a wooden leg, with which he brains his victims. Like Cuchulain, Henry ventures out into the world at the age of five, a child of nearly superhuman strength, and like Cuchulain he is irresistible, even at this age, to every woman he meets. (My one quibble with the book is that Doyle overplays this motif. Even his strongest female characters are trivialized by it.)
By the time Henry is eight, both of his parents have disappeared and his beloved younger brother Victor is dead. Armed with nothing but his strength, his wits, and the literally enchanting effect he has on women–plus his father’s leg, which he carries on his hip, a sword for this lusterless Wooden Age–he sets out “looking for my mother.” What, exactly, that “mother” might be is the hidden subject of the rest of the novel.
Since this is a national epic, the obvious answer would seem to be Ireland. And indeed, the word “Ireland” is everywhere, on everyone’s lips. Henry fights in the 1916 Easter Uprising against British rule and subsequently becomes an IRA hit man working for Michael Collins. By the end of the novel, it is 1922, the British are out, and the Irish Free State has been established. But Doyle uses his bold, bright language to tell a political story of subtle shading. “Ireland,” unmodified, means nothing. Or as Henry puts it, “I didn’t give a shite about Ireland.”
What he cares about is the poor, the homeless–and his own “ten percent.” In the Easter Uprising he’s not an Irish Volunteer, but a member of the Citizen Army, commanded by the Marxist James Connolly. Henry doesn’t shoot at the opposing soldiers, most of whom come from his own class, but at the Dublin shops, at the goods that have been denied him.
With the execution of Connolly on May 12, 1916, Henry’s real war is over. Only he doesn’t realize it for five more years. Somewhat like Cuchulain, who had a habit of going into a deforming trance in battle, Henry fights like a “fuckin’ eejit.” He fights on, for Michael Collins and “Ireland,” without asking himself the crucial question: What sort of Ireland?
An ominous drumbeat through the novel is the word “business.” Dolly Oblong, a whorehouse madame, is the “businesswoman” who employed Henry Smart Sr. as a bouncer, and the shadowy Alfie Gandon is the “businessman” who employed him as a hit man. Gandon is another doppelgänger, whose role in the novel approximates that of Clare Quilty in Nabokov’s Lolita. Almost never onstage but a clamorous presence in the wings, Gandon stands for the kind of Ireland Henry is fighting for. Rich and powerful in the enslaved Ireland, he will be rich and powerful in the free one. The only difference will be his new, Gaelicized name: O’Ganduin.
“Catholic and capitalist, Henry,” James Connolly says to our hero during the Easter Uprising. “It’s an appalling combination.”
Nationalist, Catholic Ireland will be even worse than British-ruled Ireland. It will no longer have room for Leopold Bloom. In one of several tips of the hat to Joyce, Doyle introduces late in the book a minor Bloomian character–antidogmatic, humane, Jewish–who surprisingly, and movingly, casts a large shadow. In the darkness of that shadow, Henry finally sees the light. Ireland is free, but he is not: “I couldn’t stay here. Every breath of its stale air, every square inch of the place mocked me, grabbed at my ankles.”
This recalls Stephen Dedalus at the close of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, sallying away from “home and friends” and invoking as his weapons “silence, exile, and cunning.” But Doyle is blessed, like one of his characters, with “a tenor voice that could open cans,” and the last thing one wants from him is silence. If it’s true that his trilogy is going to span 100 years, he is only one-fifth of the way. Perhaps the next volume will be bigger. His Ulysses, perhaps.