Oh, Play That Thing Hardcover – Sep 14 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Doyle stumbles somewhat in this sequel to his excellent 1999 bestseller, A Star Called Henry. Beginning with Irish revolutionary Henry Smart's arrival in New York City in 1924, the story follows Henry's subsequent adventures in advertising, bootlegging, pornography, unlicensed dentistry and keeping ahead of the former associates who'd like to see him eat a lead sandwich. After encroaching too much on a mobster's turf—and getting lucky with another powerful fellow's kept lady—Henry hightails it to Chicago, where he becomes the unofficial manager of a young Louis Armstrong. Though serendipitously reunited with his beloved wife and the daughter he's never met while trying to rob her employer's house, Henry soon heads back to New York to help Louis make it big. While just as brash and lively as Doyle's earlier novels, this one isn't nearly as focused; the dialogue-heavy narrative is interspersed with shifts in setting, time and plot, and characters appear and disappear with little consequence, their spoken parts hasty, repetitive and often perplexing. Worse, Doyle takes Henry Smart's charm for granted; readers unfamiliar with his previous adventures may roll their eyes at his arrogance and incessant sexual encounters. There's just too much material; any of the novel's numerous strands could have been fleshed out into its own book. That said, the novel is still a lot of improbable fun.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
Times may be tough in 1920s New York, but for ex-IRA assassin Henry Smart, Ellis Island seems like heaven on earth. In this ebullient continuation of the epic that began with the 2000 best-seller A Star Called Henry, Dublin-born Smart leaves behind his loving wife (whom he still calls Miss O'Shea) and infant daughter to start life anew. Donning a pearl gray fedora and a snappy suit, Henry finds a job as a sandwich-board ad man and complements his earnings by selling the bootleg liquor tucked inside the placards. As he mingles with gangsters and dolls, Henry keeps a watchful eye out for the "hard men" who know about the death warrant issued for him on the other side of the Atlantic. When his overly enterprising ways enrage his superiors, Henry flees to Chicago, where he embraces the emerging jazz scene and becomes trumpeter Louis Armstrong's right-hand man. In an era when skin color dictates status, Smart's responsibilities are clear: "My purpose was my whiteness, and my willingness to walk it beside Louis." The two return to Harlem, where the soaring music scene makes Smart's heart sing. But the past forever haunts Henry, who holds out hope for a reunion with true love O'Shea. Booker Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter Doyle displays his trademark sensitivity and wit in a tale full of adventure, passion, and prose as punchy as a Satchmo riff. Allison Block
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The writing itself is incredible, and Henry is still the hero who alternately flutters and tears apart your heart, but the plot is just about impossible to follow - or believe. Henry goes from one over-the-top situation to the next, and the coincidences leave you scratching your head. And his incredible, complicated, timeless love for his wife - which drove the plot and the pace of the first novel - takes the backseat much of the time. Yes, Henry is far away and yes, he is a Casanova with an unquenchable thirst, but he conveniently leaves all that passion and pain behind, save for the occasional line or two that Roddy Doyle seems to offer up to forgive Henry's forgetting.
In the end, I felt like I'd missed half the points the novel was trying to make, and Henry Smart became more of a cheap pawn than a complex character. He became a whole new, impossible-to-believe character, with barely a link to the boy we first met. I can't imagine where the next novel will take us, although it looks like Henry will see his name in lights after all. I'd trade in all that flash for one more dirty, gritty story of the real MacCoy.
I loved it and can't wait for the third one!
I understood this project, but the dour memory of "Star" kept me from grabbing this sequel for a few years. I confess no interest in jazz; as Louis Armstrong is the supporting role here, I figured I'd have little enthusiasm for Henry as he enters The Jazz Age after he flees Dublin as a wanted man.
Luckily, the research (as with "Star") credited at the close of this novel enriches its contents. Doyle hammers down a staccato, tough-guy command of dialogue that's almost parodic of the hardbitten genre, but it fits Henry and his molls and mobsters and hobos and hucksters. It's very literary, even as it tries to convince you it's vernacular, full of "yare" and not so much slang as gnawed and clamped speech.
The picaresque adventures of Henry Smart comprise four parts. Without spoiling much, as we know Smart will survive to tell more tales in "The Dead Republic," it begins in Manhattan. "They were families, three and four generations of them; the Irish traveled alone." This in the second paragraph of a dramatic arrival at Ellis Island shows immediately Henry's exile and his defiant, but lonely among crowds, character.
His escapades as a sandwich-board toting, hooch-smuggling New Yorker take up the first section, which although wonderfully described and full of immigrant vivacity ends a bit confusingly, if intentionally so. He flees to upstate, where he for a while succeeds with his partner in crime, as a dentist-diviner of water, an odd combination surely, and this flim-flam exposure will serve him in good stead later on. For a while, they make a fine team. "We pawed and ate each other till the walls sweated and we lay back under the blankets and coat and listened to our moisture on the wall turn to ice and slowly rip up the wallpaper." What an image. The lively action in such New York scenes, the strongest in the novel, as we watch Henry drum up customers while staying ahead of his pursuers, energizes this section. Again, he has to skedaddle out of town suddenly.
In Chicago, where "Black and Tan" takes on a whole new meaning, Henry's brief period at the stockyards is followed by his friendship with a rising talent, Louis Armstrong. "The trombone now rode every woman in the house and stepped back for a rest and a wash." The sex appeal of jazz and the star attraction of Armstrong congeal and thicken, as Henry is drawn in but kept at a distance in his companionship of "Pops," a young Louis the same age as Henry.
This relationship is explained as Armstrong needing a white man to keep him protected from the other white men who want to claim him; Louis' fierce independence contending against his need for backup, a way into the larger society which adores him yet shuts him out is well-handled by Doyle. "His horn was the song of freedom but his life was a crazy jail. He needed control, but he hadn't worked it out. I was the start but he wasn't sure how."
Yet, a crucial character returns in a chance meeting that defies probability. This happens when Henry and Louis are burglarizing mansions in Chicago to get by, and their frequent escapes from the Mob and their ilk make this rather cartoonish. Later, Henry will be saved at the last moment in another scene that feels as if stolen from a melodrama, and even if we know neither he nor Louis will suffer mortal danger, Doyle's storytelling stretches the limits of how much plot contrivance, among a nation as wide as America, one can believe, compared to Ireland, where Henry had similar rescues, if on a far smaller stage for such derring-do.
The third section takes Henry back to Manhattan, where a past lover turns up in a Sister Aimee Semple McPherson (by another name) role, which overlaps with Louis' acclaim in Harlem and beyond as the Depression begins. "They've no memory here. It gets in the way of progress." Still, he's hunted, despite such assurances that he can blend into Harlem and elude those who shadow him. So, it's off to the Midwest.
The Dust Bowl's ravages loom, and the desolation of the West consumes Henry and his compatriots. At a hobo "jungle," he reflects. "The future and the past were one--grits, bacon, biscuits, gravy. Only the present got in the way, as we waited for the bits and miserable pieces in the pot to become a stew."
The wait here in this novel resembles its narrator's predicament. It's not that long a book, but this final section felt too compressed and perfunctory, as if Doyle along with Henry and his desperate, destitute companions melt into a summation of how legends are made, and the years begin to blur. Finally, none other than "print the legend" John Ford, no stranger to myth-making (he spouts one of his own from his life) provides a suitably climactic rescue one more time, but by then, the bravado and imagination for Henry's decades in the American heartland appear withered and washed up, despite his survival for the closing volume in this trilogy. (P.S. I reviewed "Star" here way back on Nov. 16, 1999.)