With his latest novel, Roddy Doyle, the laureate of Dublin’s present "lower middle classes," moves down the social ladder a notch or two and a century back in time. His sympathy remains, however, clearly with the proles, and in Henry Smart he has found his ideal protagoniststreet-smart, hard-bitten, up for any scam, but at heart a romantic.
Doyle is betting heavily on Henry’s durability, since there are two more novels planned in a historical trilogy to balance off his initial Barrytown saga (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van). The stakes are higher now, partly because of his Booker Prize (for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). But more importantly because, in taking on the sacred matter of Irish 20th-century myth and history, he has given us what can only be called a "rat’s-eye view" of the proceedings, sometimes quite literally from sewer level.
Until quite recently, tampering in such a way with the Easter Rising and ensuing "War of Independence" would have been considered sacrilegious for any novelist, even for one as popular as Doyle. But Ireland’s current prosperity, its reassertion of a wider European identity, and a growing national and cultural self-confidence have allowed for, perhaps even encouraged, unorthodox treatments of such foundational pieties. Likewise, Doyle’s own growing mastery of the novel’s possibilitiesand of the screenplay treatments that have followedhas well prepared him for the task.
Our picaresque hero Henry Smart gets to tell his own story in his own way, but Doyle introduces plenty of crisp dialogue to relieve the burden of a single point of view. Henry’s slum nativity is attended by a shooting star, and he soon grows to heroic proportions, like the legendary Finn McCool, both in size and ego. By three he’s roaming the streets, grabbing what he needs or wants, and two years later he’s joined by his one-year-old brother, Victor, to form Dublin’s dynamic duo of 1906.
The street skirmishes, though, are only a rehearsal for the coming battle. Easter 1916 finds Henry (minus Victor, dead of T.B.) barricaded in London’s General Post Office with Pearce and Connolly and the rest. He survives the attempted breakout but is caught up with everyone else in the post-surrender roundup. Knowledge of Dublin’s sewers, learned from his Da, spares him jail or worse and leaves him free to enlist in the undercover war masterminded by Michael Collins and his lieutenants. Nurtured on street skirmishes, Henry takes quickly to Collins’s hit-and-run guerilla tactics, knocking off purported spies and traitors on command and then melting back into the streetscape.
A confirmed Fenian by this time, Henry the teenager is sent out across the countryside by the 20-something Collins to train the local militias in the new ways of war. He thus meets the young Ivan, who will outdo his mentor by learning more quickly that war is simply a more efficient way of doing business under a patriotic standard that covers a multitude of crimes. But Ivan is just small potatoes, a local gombeen man who apes his betters in turning others’ misery to his own profit.
At the top of that food chain sits the mobster Alfie Gandon, newly styled Alfred O’Ganduin in his role as a senior member of the revolutionary government. It is with him that Henry has his deepest grievance, though it takes him the whole novel to discover why and work his revenge. At the end Henry discovers that he and his father before him were both Gandon’s pawns, dispatched to eliminate other small fry who had outlived their usefulness or were stepping out of line. "We needed troublemakers and very soon now we’ll have to be rid of them," his former Fenian mentor tells him before showing Henry the fatal slip of paper inscribed with his own name.
But by this time Henry has wised up enough to see beyond the next assassination. He has married the buxom schoolmistress who years before took pity on him and Victor, and together they have produced a child she has named Saiorse ("Freedom"). Ironically, his wife now finds herself temporarily incarcerated by their former comrades in the same Kilmainham Jail where not many years before the British turned Irish patriots into martyrs by executing them.
In such a world Henry is still Smart enough to get out before he becomes the next victim. Not knowing where he's going or how he'll get there, he remains confident in his ability to make it. The book's last lines sum up his particular take on the pictaresque creed that allies him with all the self-made heroes of Western legend and literature: "But I was still alive. I was twenty. I was Henry Smart."
And I, for one, am looking forward to the next adventure!"