Oh, Play That Thing
Our Irish hero arrives in New York in 1924 to bury himself in the teeming city and start a new life; having escaped Dublin after the 1916 Rebellion, Henry Smart is on the run from the Republicans for whom he committed murder and mayhem. Lying to the immigration officer, avoiding Irish eyes that might recognise him, hiding the photograph of himself with his wife because it shows a gun across his lap, he throws his passport into the river and tries to forge a new identity. He charms his way into the noisy, tough Lower East Side, reads to Puerto Rican cigar makers, hauls bottles for a bootlegger and composes ads on sandwich boards, finally setting up his own business with the intention of making his fortune. But he makes enemies along the way among mobsters such as Johnny No and Fast Olaf. Henry hightails it out of Manhattan with a gun at his back and Fast Olaf’s hustler of a half-sister on his arm.
This was a time when America was ripe for the picking, however, and a pair of good, strong con artists could have the world at their fingertips. The Depression was sending folks to ride the rails in search of a new life and new hope, and all trains led to Chicago. As Henry’s past tries to catch up with him, he takes off on a journey to the great port, where music is everywhere: wild, happy music played by a man with a trumpet called Louis Armstrong. Armstrong needs a white man, and the man he chooses is Henry Smart.
The bestselling A Star Called Henry followed Henry Smart from his birth in 1902 until the age of twenty, by which time he had already had a lifetime’s worth of adventures in his native Ireland. With these books, Doyle was trying in some ways to write a story like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, starting at the beginning of his life and following him through many years of adventures. To write the new book, he had to research the vanished world of pre-war America.
“I went to Chicago, on the south side, to see if any of the old jazz clubs were still around. I was very keen to see what Henry would have seen as he’d stood outside, under the awnings. But all the jazz clubs that were along State Street, they’re all gone; every one of them’s gone. There’s one that’s still standing – it was, originally, The Sunset Cafe, where Louis Armstrong played, but now it’s a hardware store. The Vendome Cinema, where he used to play during the intermissions, is now a parking lot for the local college. That I found upsetting. But on the other hand it was very liberating because in its absence I can invent.”
Music, often American soul or blues, is always important in Roddy Doyle’s work, often as escapism for the working-class Dubliners in the Barrytown books. Doyle grew up listening to American music and likes to write while listening to music. For Henry in America, Doyle says, “when he hears this music, he feels he’s being baptized. He’s new. He feels he’s gotten away from Ireland. He’s gotten away from the misery of it all and he’s listening to this glorious celebration.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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1. Roddy Doyle says he avoids lengthy descriptions in his books and tries to let the characters speak for themselves. “I’ve always liked brilliant dialogue, in Elmore Leonard, in Flannery O’Connor, anywhere where you can tell as soon as the characters open their mouths where they’re from... I...
—The Scotsman (UK)
“Easily the most sustained and moving piece of fiction Doyle has ever written.”
—The Dublin Evening Herald (UK)
“You can’t put Oh, Play That Thing down. It has this insane energy.”
—The Edmonton Journal
“The Irish author has indeed gotten better with each novel he writes. . . . Doyle takes his riskiest step yet: He leaves Ireland altogether for 1920s America. The risk pays of handsomely.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“Doyle appears to be incapable of writing a bad novel. . . . Oh, Play That Thing is a coup of imagination and verve.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“Doyle has a legendarily good way with words. . . . Oh, Play That Thing is a celebration of unanchored storytelling, like a jazz musician who’s taken a 12-bar solo.”
“For its ambition alone, and for its estimable feat of casting the great Satchmo in a compelling new light, Oh, Play That Thing shouldn’t be missed.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)
“As engrossing and stimulating as listening to a classically trained musician improvise a jazz combo. It’s both familiar and strange and that is what keeps your senses jumping as you are turning the pages. Shaking up readers’ expectations is a good and necessary thing.”
—The Globe and Mail
“In prose that echoes the syncopated beat of the Jazz Age itself, Doyle brings Henry as well as Armstrong and his music to vibrant life. Oh, read this thing.”
Praise for A Star Called Henry, Volume One of The Last Roundup Trilogy:
“With A Star Called Henry, Doyle has put all of his prodigious gifts into a single character. . . . A Star Called Henry is a startling achievement. . .and a worm’s-eye view of Irish history. A grand thing of beauty.”
—A Globe and Mail Best Book of ’99
“Doyle gives us the delightful Henry Smart, a kind of Irish Huck Finn, dirt poor by birth, strong and handsome by good fortune, charming and resourceful by necessity. . . . [Doyle’s] mastery of voice and observed experience is a rare gift.”
“Maybe the Great American Novel remains to be written, but on the evidence of its first installment, this is the epic Irish one, created at a high pitch of eloquence.”
“In other, less forgiving climes (say, the Soviet Union), Doyle would be put on a cattle truck and sent away. For ever. There is no higher praise, I believe, than to say a book is that dangerous. I can also say that here, for once, that most overused of terms is applicable: this really is a masterpiece.”
—The Irish Times