One of the strongest moments in the pop music of the last few years was the Cranberries’ “Zombie.” A refusal of the claims of history that winds up emphasizing the weight of those claims, the song is the Irish band’s answer to expectations that Irish artists make a statement on “the troubles.” But unlike U2, who first reached a large audience with their song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the Cranberries weren’t having any of it. “It’s the same old theme/Since 1916,” sang Dolores O’Riordan, and her tone told you that she didn’t care who started what fight or who did what to whose great-uncle, and that she wasn’t interested in sorting out the streams of spilled blood that ran together in some gutter long ago. She’d heard all the arguments and she was sick of them. The music told another story: the impossibility of escaping those grudges. Mike Hogan’s bass, as it lurched along under his brother Noel’s distorted guitar, sounded like the souls of the revolution’s dead trudging toward their graves — or attempting to rise from them. Over it all, the — and I’m afraid the cliché fits — wordless banshee wail of O’Riordan’s vocals was like an ancient incantation, desperately invoked to send the walking dead back to their rest.
“Zombie” is a horrifying song. And its bitterness, its vision of history reaching forward to make a dead end of the present, is palpable in Roddy Doyle’s new novel, “A Star Called Henry,” as well, rising over the course of the book until it’s overwhelming. The cover shows a smiling boy on a Dublin street and prepares you for Doyle’s special gift for depicting rude, unsentimental cheer amid privation. Look closer at the background and you’ll see a youngster walking along the street with a rifle over his shoulder. In Doyle’s novel — set in the years 1900 to 1920, encompassing the 1916 Easter Rebellion and Ireland’s eventual emergence as a republic — brutality is casual, simply part of the territory.
During his years on the run as an IRA gunman, Doyle’s protagonist, Henry Smart, makes the acquaintance of Climanis, a Jewish Latvian refugee who provides him with cover and the fleeting refuge of a safe house. The rapport between Henry and Climanis is natural and unforced, but this makes it impossible to trust in an atmosphere where killing has the everyday and personal touch of a neighbor greeting a neighbor. Doyle ends one passage with Climanis offering a toast to Henry and his wife (also a revolutionary) and opens the next section with this sentence: “I was right up against his back when I shot him.” It takes nearly a paragraph to realize that Henry’s target is not Climanis, but one of the people he has been directed to kill — efficiently, unquestioningly — in order to eliminate some perceived threat to the Republican cause, or to send a warning, or merely to stir things up.
It’s impossible to underestimate the force of that uncertainty. The constant in Roddy Doyle’s novels has always been the author’s empathy for his protagonists — whether it was Jimmie Rabbitte Sr. of “The Barrytown Trilogy,” a middle-aged man confronting the question of his own self-worth; or Paddy Clarke thinking he had the power to hold together his parents’ crumbling marriage; or the battered wife regaining control of her life in “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.” Like them, Henry Smart struggles. Worse. He is poor, dirt poor, where Doyle’s other characters have all been working class but solvent. But where they suffered from cruelty, Henry inflicts it. Violence is mother’s milk to him. The coat worn by Henry’s father, doorman at a brothel and hit man at the behest of a local crime lord, has absorbed years of killing and dirt and sweat and drink. Picked up by his father, the infant Henry tries to find a nipple in the filthy garment. Henry’s father, as fathers tend to do in Irish novels and memoirs, disappears, leaving Henry with no legacy beyond his old man’s wooden leg. Talisman and companion, used to crack heads and to cleave to his missing father’s spirit, the leg accompanies Henry throughout the novel.
Poverty is the motivating force of Henry’s life, the thing that sends him scrambling through the streets of Dublin, dirt-caked and barefoot, the thing that later sends him to the rebel cause. Poverty is both an accepted fact of life here — “And then Victor died” is how Henry informs us that his beloved 5-year-old brother Victor simply doesn’t wake up one morning — and obscenely vital. Here’s Henry describing the hovels he and his mother and siblings live in:
Decomposing wallpaper, pools of stagnant water, rats on the scent of baby milk. Colonies of flies in the wet, crumbling walls. Typhoid and other death in every breath, on every surface. Banisters that shook when held, floors that creaked and groaned, timber that cried for sparks. Shouts and fights, rage and coughing, coughing — death creeping nearer. And the rooms behind the steps got smaller and darker and more and more evil. We fell further and further. The walls crumbled and closed in on us. Her children died and joined the stars. Rooms with no windows, floors that bred cockroaches. We cried at the smell of other people’s lousy food. We cried at the pain that burned through our sores. We cried for arms to gather and hold us. We cried for heat and for socks, for milk, for light, for an end to the itches that stopped us from sleeping. We cried at the lice that shone and curled and mocked us. We cried for our mother to come and save us. Poor mother. Finally, finally, we crept down to our last room, a basement, as low as we could go, a hole that yawned and swallowed us.
That passage is a set-up. We’ve read it before, in stories of the Irish, and of blacks and Okies, as an argument for the righteousness of “the cause,” and as explanation for why we can look for Tom Joad wherever a cop is beating a guy, wherever a baby cried because he was hungry. And I think Doyle wants us to expect that sort of justification. Because once we do, we are unprepared for what he confronts us with. Poverty is an explanation here, but not for anything heroic. It’s an explanation for cunning rather than intelligence, for solitude rather than comradeship, for the violence that is proposed, carried out, countenanced and accepted. Henry doesn’t join up out of idealism but out of resentment. Holed up in the post office during the uprising, Henry talks about a Republican banner that proclaims, “We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser.” “If I’d had my way, Or Anyone Else would have been added, instead of But Ireland. I didn’t give a shite about Ireland.” Yes, Henry feels a thrill at the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. But in the book’s grand scheme, that’s a moment of surrender to collective sentiment. The truth is that what matters to Henry is the thrill of being a man to be reckoned with, the thumping sound as he and the other volunteers march through the street commanding an attention that none of them would be able to command on his own.
It’s that resistance to ideology, that refusal to see the rebellion’s guerrilla fallout in grand terms, that characterizes this book. The rebellion, with its holiday gaiety and looting that gradually give way to an inferno in which the decaying bodies of civilians and horses pile up in the street, is an Irish version of the Bosch-meets-Peckinpah delirium of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” — minus McCarthy’s reductive and simpleminded Guignol.
“A Star Called Henry” spirals from the rebellion into flight, ambush and revenge, during all of which the question of Ireland comes to seem more and more beside the point. The point is violence, the pleasure of it, of being able to make yourself feared. By the end, Henry, only 20, seems much older, and he is plunged into an existential nightmare similar to that endured by the Lee Marvin character in “Point Blank,” a wraith of a man who goes on a mission of revenge only to discover that all along he’s been acting as the puppet of his betrayer. The climactic pages are like an Irish noir whose meaning could have been taken from Yeats’ line about there being no past or future in Ireland, only the present repeating itself, now.
Doyle’s work has progressed from pop entertainments to novels in which both the view of his native culture and his use of language have become increasingly dense and daring. With nearly every novel, he has risked losing the audience his previous work has built. “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,” by detailing the inner life of a character who couldn’t rely on the safety net of the family, risked losing the readers hooked by the profane, familial warmth of “The Barrytown Trilogy.” “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” was received in some quarters of Ireland as a betrayal because of the way it linked the acceptance of domestic abuse to a Catholic culture that preaches the virtues of suffering. For a writer beloved for his odes to the Irish family, Doyle was taking chances by locating a sickness — violence — at the heart of it. With “A Star Called Henry,” he traces that sickness to the core of his country’s history.
With each new novel, Doyle’s language has become richer. The Barrytown books were nearly all dialogue (no wonder people read them and envisioned movies), and they were marvelous feats of ventriloquism and control; as every character fought to be heard in the ongoing squabble of family life, each voice in the ensuing cacophony remained distinct. “Paddy Clarke” described childhood’s inner life, its smells and textures, and merited that much-overworked appellation “Joycean.” “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” was a shift, not just to the first person, but to the voice of a woman as well.
“A Star Called Henry,” also written in the first person, has the richest language of any Doyle novel yet. “Paddy Clarke” was impressionistic; this book is expressionistic. The language flows in descriptive torrents that carry the reader, as well as Henry, from event to event. History goes by in a blur here, an indecipherable blend of news and rumor and legend, as in Henry’s description of the looting and chaos he sees from his perch during the uprising:
I couldn’t tell where the bullet had come from but, across the street, right in front of me, I saw a man being shot. He stiffened; he dropped slowly to his knees, grabbed a pillar, and stayed there, kneeling. For two days. Further up the street, two drunks were getting sick at the stony feet of Father Matthew and a woman made an armchair for herself out of one of the dead horses; she wrapped herself from the wind and rain in velvet curtains and cuddled up between the horse’s legs. There was serious madness going on out there. And, in the middle of it all, Pearse gave us a speech. Dublin, by rising in arms, has redeemed its honour forfeited in 1813 when it failed to support the rebellion of Robert Emmet. I looked out at Dublin rising.
“A Star Called Henry” is a triumph of craft and intelligence and toughness of mind. Doyle has not sentimentalized the past or capitulated to it. That, for Doyle, is the province of history’s hostages and its fools, like Frank McCourt’s father in “Angela’s Ashes,” who night after night comes home in his cups and rouses his sons from bed to ask them if they’re ready to die for Ireland. But by staying true to his vision of the tyranny of history, by refusing to soften Henry into a hero or redeem him with a higher purpose, Doyle has written his least emotionally involving novel — though it is by far his riskiest and most fluid, and certainly harsher than anything anyone might have expected from him. Like the Cranberries setting out to bury the past in “Zombie,” he finds how hard it is to escape that past. “A Star Called Henry” is Doyle’s “Ireland” novel, his way of dealing with the millstone that threatens to attach itself to the neck of every Irish writer. And in this unsparing, pitiless vision of his country’s past he may have slipped its noose. The language of “A Star Called Henry” is that of a writer with dazzling books in front of him. If only the dead cooperate by staying dead.