Mired in history

A Star Called Henry

Roddy Doyle <em>Jonathan Cape, 342pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0224060198

There is something paradoxical about Roddy Doyle's fiction, both in the writing itself and in its critical reception. His novels are beguiling, exuberant and tightly plotted yet, at the same time, they're often clumsy, sentimental and a little too forced to be affecting. He's been vilified (for being populist) and honoured (1993 Booker prize), while many considered his last work, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, to be the novel that finally marked the end of his journey from apprentice to serious writer. And what better way to confirm this hard-won status than with all the gravitas of a historical fiction. After all, everyone else is doing it, so why can't he?

Neatly partitioned into four sections, A Star Called Henry opens with the author dredging the feculent gutters of a Joycean "under Dublin" at the beginning of the century. He does so in order to reveal a horde of desperate characters "made of Dublin muck", including the one-legged hit man, Henry Smart, who dispatches his victims with a well-timed blow to the head, courtesy of his wooden leg. As he's the doorman of the local whorehouse - its decrepit interior all stiff with ageing velvet - he's kept well informed about street-level politics and, when he's finally popped off by the owner, it's an inquisitiveness he bequeaths to his son, along with his leg and a talent for killing. And it's Henry Smart Jr - the hero of the book and its narrator - who we see growing up on the harsh streets of Dublin towards the end of section one.

Immediately, however, there are problems with Henry's narrative perspective, especially in the relationship between memory and perception. As it's a story told a considerable time after the events, the narrator must recall what happened without allowing a knowingness to forestall the drama. And here Doyle is more or less successful. But when he goes a step further, to allow Henry to tell us his thoughts as a baby long before he'd have been able to articulate them, the results are embarrassing: "And what about me? I was annoyed. I was hopping. I was struggling, squirming . . . I was going to have to get used to - hunger and neglect." Even though Henry proves to be a precocious youth (he's on the streets at five), it's farcical for a baby only a few months old to be this knowing, even if we have all read Tristram Shandy, and it serves only to jeopardise the reader- narrator relationship.

Yet Doyle is a good enough writer to win back our trust, and by the time he takes us to the epicentre of the 1916 Easter Rising, the General Post Office, we are too involved to dwell on past indiscretions. Having graduated from the streets to the Citizen Army, Henry is now fighting alongside the likes of Collins, Connolly, Pearse and Clarke in their campaign to end British rule in Ireland. Concentrating on the sounds of conflict, Doyle records the tumbling masonry, the "glass crashing onto glass", the fizz of bullets, the shouts of pain and panic, the clack of boots on cobblestones and, when the lights go out across the city, the eerie moment of silence accompanied by "a darkness that only the farmers' sons had ever known". It's all cleverly orchestrated to suggest both the romanticism and the gut conviction of a defiance that was also known as "the poets' insurrection".

Again, though, Henry's brag and bluster detract from the nervous intensity of the scene. "I was probably the best-looking man in the GPO," he declares, while telling us of the men falling around him. Then he confesses to being a "pleasure machine" and has sex with a woman in the basement. His life may effortlessly combine the craic and the pistol-whip, but there's an important difference between an unreliable narrator and an implausible one. Henry makes traffic between the two.

After the rising, Henry works by day and kills by night, sometimes using his father's leg to do the job. (Indeed there are several amputations in the book, which symbolise, in a fairly lame way, the dismemberment of Ireland's body politic.) Henry's love interest, the woman from the GPO, joins him later, and they cycle the city, shooting at the Black and Tans, like Bonnie and Clyde on push-bikes. Documentary details of the evolving political situation are left to explain what's going on because, by now, the love story has taken over.

There are enough fine moments in A Star Called Henry to remind us that Doyle is an accomplished writer; his dialogue is earthy and effective, he can render a scene as well as anyone and a simple poetry plays around the edges of his prose. But he remains prone to stylistic flaws and heavy doses of sentiment, enough to sedate the most determined of stories.