In the opening chapter of The Dead Republic, the last novel in The Final Roundup trilogy, the narrator, Henry Smart, gives us a handy summary of the story so far. With it comes a sharp reminder of just how improbable much of the plotting has been. ‘I found my wife again in Chicago,’ recalls Henry, ‘when I broke into a house with Louis Armstrong . . . I crawled into the desert to die. I died. I came back from the dead when Henry Fonda pissed on me.’
Roddy Doyle, of course, once specialised in more straightforward tales of working-class Dubliners, whether comic (The Van), tragic (The Woman Who Walked into Doors) or a bit of both (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). Then, in 1999, he suddenly struck out in a new direction. A Star Called Henry, the first volume of The Final Roundup, did retain his resolutely non-fancy writing style. Yet it also seemed ambitiously intent on being the Irish equivalent of Midnight’s Children, complete with a heavy dollop of magic realism and a main character whose history neatly mirrored that of his country.
Born in the Dublin slums in 1901, Henry Smart was in the GPO during the 1916 Uprising, and spent the War of Independence hanging out with Michael Collins. He also had a lot more sex than you might expect for someone living in early 20th-century Ireland. Doyle was clearly smitten with his own narrator, but just about managed to avoid what Henry characteristically called ‘sentimental shite’, through the vigour of the writing and, above all, through a gleefully systematic demolition of Republican myths. The book ended with Henry having outlived his usefulness to the self-interested architects of free Ireland, a leaving his new wifeand fleeing to America.
The next book, Oh, Play That Thing, was, by contrast, a baffling mess — seeming not so much picaresque as entirely arbitrary. The prose still rattled along, but now Doyle appeared to confuse magic realism with wild coincidence, the absence of recognisable human motivation and the right to throw in any bits of social history he fancied: from the hobo jungles of the Depression to jazz-age Chicago, where Louis Armstrong inexplicably employed Henry as his right-hand man. (Hence that joint break-in at a house where his wife happened to be working as a maid.) It was also difficult to see what any of this had to do with The Final Roundup’s aim of telling ‘the whole history of Ireland in the 20th century’ — unless it was by inadvertently embodying the over-romanticisation of America.
So, can The Dead Republic possibly save the day? The slightly anti-climactic answer is ‘sort of’ — although for a while the signs aren’t good, largely because the first 130 pages consist of overmatter from Oh, Play That Thing.
Again separated from his wife, but retaining the strange ability to get major real-life cultural figures to offer him jobs for which he has no qualifications, Henry ended the last book being taken up as a scriptwriter by John Ford. (Ford had been directing Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine when Fonda took that life-restoring pee.) For reasons we never learn, Ford knows all about Henry’s IRA life and now wants to tell the story in a movie, to be called The Quiet Man.
But, as you might imagine — especially if you’ve seen The Quiet Man — that’s not how it turns out. Irish-Americans being unable to bear very much reality, Ford rejects Henry’s memories of Irish baddies and IRA viciousness in favour of a whole-hearted celebration of ‘leprechaun Ireland’. Unfortunately, Doyle’s account of how this happens reads like the corniest of Hollywood plots — which rather undermines his attack on Hollywood corniness. In any case, of course, it doesn’t require 130 pages of fiction to establish that The Quiet Man takes a somewhat idealised view of the ould sod.
Happily, once Ford disappears from the narrative, the novel does settle down. Better still, it settles down in Ireland, where Henry returns for the filming. (Just as Rushdie is always far more convincing when writing about India and Pakistan, so is Doyle, we now know, when he sticks to Ireland.) Ending up in a small town north of Dublin, he takes a job as a gardener. Sure enough, one of his clients turns out to be that unlosable wife — but otherwise Doyle provides a rich and believable portrait of Ireland in the 1960s as it starts to change uneasily, and slightly to its own amazement, into a modern European country. At the same time Henry himself, who for the past book and a third came close to seeming merely a fictional device, begins to recover some coherence as a character.
But Henry’s past isn’t dead yet. When the Troubles start in the North, the IRA come calling. Although it does take a few more implausible plot-twists to get there, now at last Doyle can return to the reliably fascinating subject of Irish politics — and give more recent Republican myths the same treatment he gave the founding ones in A Star Called Henry. Admittedly, the notion that the Provisional IRA were violent and deluded won’t come as an enormous shock to every reader. Nevertheless, Doyle’s central idea that so long after Independence, Ireland is still in search of an identity proves both bracing and persuasive. Pulling together many of the strands of the trilogy is Henry’s heartfelt objection, as a Dubliner, to the dream of Ireland as a rural idyll: a dream apparently shared by the Provos as well as John Ford, Eamon de Valera and one of Henry’s hate-figures back in 1916, Patrick Pearse.
The question certainly remains of whether it needed three books and more than 1,000 pages to reach these conclusions. (Given that Doyle once famously claimed ‘Ulysses could have done with a good editor’, the words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ do rather spring to mind.) Even so, after that lengthy false start, The Dead Republic does ensure, at the very least, that The Final Roundup hasn’t ended in disaster.