In Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry (1999), Henry Smart escapes the British by fleeing to the sewers after the Easter Uprising of 1916. Now in the sequel, Oh, Play That Thing, Henry, on the wrong side of the civil war, does what renegades throughout history have done and leaves for America.
For a refugee from Roman Catholic Ireland, America in the ’20s is a devil’s playground, full of booze, sex, and most exhilarating of all, jazz. In Chicago, he discovers the sound of America: “The first time I heard it . . . [it] took me by the ears and spat on my forehead, baptized me.” Henry becomes Louis Armstrong’s bodyguard, his “white man,” boasting, “I was there . . . in that corner, in that studio. The most famous trumpet solo in jazz history was played by Louis Armstrong, but it was brought to you by Henry Smart.”
Like a musician mixing blues riffs with snatches of jigs, Doyle weaves his story through numerous genres. The first two-thirds of the book milks the black-master/white-manservant angle for laughs while playing off a deadly serious underworld setting, in which Italian and Jewish bootleggers mix freely with mad-dog killers. The last third is an unexpected road saga: Henry and his newfound wife become an Irish Bonnie and Clyde, moving from town to town down roads that “went on forever, as long as silence.”
Stark realism gives way to ghostly expressionism as Henry stumbles into Monument Valley, where John Ford (a/k/a Sean Aloysius O’Feeney) and Henry Fonda are shooting their Wyatt Earp saga, My Darling Clementine. An Irishman at the end of his road meets another Irishman turning America back to look at itself.