I love the work of Roddy Doyle. It started when I read The Commitments when it first came out and it has never wavered. His unique voice, complete with Irish as it’s spoken on the ground and in the neighborhoods of Dublin, is just a pure pleasure to read. I picked up this book before I realized that there was a book that came before it. I am given to understand that this is a kind of prequel or sequel to the other. Either way, I am glad I read this one first.
Henry Smart was a paid assassin for the IRA in the early 1900’s. He is forced to live on the run in Ireland and so leaves his wife and child to hide out and re-invent himself in the roaring twenties in America. The book opens with Henry exiting the boat on Ellis Island with all the other early immigrants of that period who came with the same idea – reinvention of self.
Henry starts out on the streets of New York. He is a bit of a grifter and born with the gift of Irish gab. He sets up his own business with street signs – people standing with sandwich boards over their shoulders advertising anything and everything. And, since Prohibition is in full swing, they also sell illegal hooch from their pockets beneath the boards.
Although Henry misses his wife and child, he is still a young man in a relatively new world and he takes up with a variety of women of all ages. But he can’t escape his IRA past and the streets of New York have plenty of keen eyed Irishmen willing to turn Henry over to the Irish mob for some pieces of silver.
Henry and one of his molls end up running a scam that runs them out of town and almost gets Henry killed. He does a little time and in an effort to put more land between Ireland and himself, he hot foots it off to Chicago. There, he starts to earn some money the way many Irishmen before him did – settling in the Back O’ The Yards and working in the meat packing plants. But for Henry, this is merely a pit stop in his adventures.
He meets a young musician on the rise – Louis Armstrong. He becomes Armstrong’s bodyguard, driver and general all-purpose man. Chicago is good to both of them. To help themselves survive, they take up petty theft and during the nighttime robbery of the widow of Marshall Field (yes, that one, of department store fame and Frangos), Henry discovers his wife and child. His wife has been searching for him, and now works as a housekeeper. His daughter was a baby the last time he saw her and is now a savvy seven year old.
From there, more and more things happen. Both good and bad and reflecting well what America was from about 1924 to 1938 or so. The story has wonderful highs and some sad lows. In this time of great discussion regarding race relations in America, the book has some thought provoking ideas on the same subject. If for no other reason, it might be a timely read for that alone.
It is a great story about America and the individuals who choose to come here and have always chosen to come here to re-invent themselves. Perhaps that is more the real American dream than any other. And that re-invention is a constant. The story also touches on organized crime, wealth and poverty, the immigrant experience, the outlaw as myth and fact and jazz.
Roddy Doyle has a writing style that for those that have not read anything by him, at first may be distracting. Sentences can be short and choppy as voices overlap. He writes in a way that reflects how people actually speak. Once you get into the rhythm of the work however, you become used to it and appreciate just how unusual and unique that voice is – and also, distinctly Irish. He uses a lot of Irish slang and some Celtic words. I love it personally.
The other thing I found is that his style of writing complements the jazz presented by Armstrong. Jazz has a unique musical voice itself. It stops and starts and bebop’s along and the words felt like jazz, if that makes any sense. That choppy stop and go with fast, crazy action complimenting slow, melancholy layers. Not only could you picture the jazz clubs and gangsters but you could almost hear the music in your head.
I love Roddy Doyle’s work and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves a good story. He is a fantastic teller of tales and you won’t be disappointed. He is also not confined to fiction. He has written at least one non-fiction book, some plays and some children’s stories. He also has a great facebook page and he often writes little ditties as a day to day practice which makes it one of my more entertaining social media stops.