Terrorist Henry Smart, the memorable IRA antihero of Doyle’s superb sixth novel (A Star Called Henry, 1999) makes an imperfect conquest of America in this widely ranging sequel.
We pick up Henry’s story in 1924, after his arrival in New York City (just ahead of gunmen assigned to kill him) and entry into the criminal underclass as an “advertising” impresario employing sandwich-board bearers. Still pining for the wife left behind, whom he knew only as “Miss O’Shea” (she having been his teacher), Henry—a strapping 23-year-old few women can resist—finds substitutes, and reasons to head west after he has infringed on mobster Louis Lepke’s turf and pleasured himself with the mistress of Hibernian-immigrant bootlegger Owney Madden. In Chicago, Henry discovers the “furious, happy and lethal” newly popular music called jazz, and bonds—rather unbelievably—with the young Louis Armstrong, who makes Henry (amusingly addressed as “O’Pops”) his de facto “white manager.” If you think this is beginning to sound like Forrest Gump, read on. Briefly and improbably reunited with Miss O’Shea and the daughter (Saoirse) he’s never seen, Henry follows the embattled (and unemployable) Armstrong to Harlem, meets gangster-nightclub owner Dutch Schultz, and reconnects with a resourceful whore who has reinvented herself as “Sister Flo” (an evangelist of the Aimee Semple McPherson variety), soon thereafter leaving Louis’s employ and moving on to LA. Surviving an encounter with a Dublin hit man, Henry rides the rails during the Depression years, loses a leg along with his family (one more time, as jazzmen say), and ends up in California in 1946, schmoozing with filmmaker John Ford, who vows his next movie will tell “the real Irish story”: i.e., Henry’s. A surprising amount of this nonsense is quite absorbing, because Booker-winner Doyle is too lively and skilled a novelist to let it be otherwise. But Oh, Play That Thing is fatally overstuffed and chaotic.
An uncharacteristic misstep in a brilliant writer’s estimable career.