A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle

I first found Roddy Doyle through the movie, “The Commitments” and was struck by the raw, funny and bawdy style of the writing. The dialogue in the movie, about a talented, dysfunctional band pursuing their dreams of stardom in Dublin, was taken for the most part from the novel. “The Commitments” was the first novel in the Barrytown Trilogy which focuses on the lives of the Rabbitte family in a small, economically depressed part of Dublin.  The family struggles with hardship but also with a generation gap between the Roman Catholic-dominated, traditional Ireland of the past and the secular modern world that is being embraced by the young.

The second novel, “The Snapper”, centers around daughter Sharon Rabbitte’s unwed and unexpected pregnancy and the repercussions in a Irish-Catholic Rabbitte family. ” The Van” finds Jimmy Rabbitte, the patriarch of the Rabbitte clan purchasing a Chip van along with his buddy, “Bimbo” Reeves, in the hopes of achieving his fortune. Unfortunately, disaster and hilarity, as well as pathos, ensue.  I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up “A Star called Henry”; I was wrong.

Henry Smart is the anti-hero of the story, and we first meet him as a small child, hungry and poor. His mother is a prostitute and Henry and his younger brother, Victor, take to the streets to beg and steal in order to survive. Henry is by his nature a survivor, alternately kind and cruel, always looking for a chance to better himself. Doyle re-creates the slums of Dublin in the early part of the twentieth century so well you can almost smell the sickly sweet cooked cabbage and the stench of raw sewage rising off the pages of the novel.

By 1916, Henry is 14 and stands over six feet, a hardened child in the body of a man. Swept along by events, Henry has become a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army as the Irish Republic is born. In the ICA, Henry finds a place to vent his rage and it’s not long before he becomes an assassin. Oddly, no matter his actions, Henry remains strangely likeable. “A Star Called Henry” is amazing and dark, tragic and beautiful and well worth a read.

“A Star called Henry” is part of the Last Roundup Trilogy, which follows Henry throughout his life. It is 1924 when we meet Henry again in “Oh, Play that Thing” and Henry, who has fallen afoul of his comrades in Ireland flees to America. In New York, Henry becomes a mobster in an attempt to run away from the poverty of his past, but his past in the IRA catches up to him. We again meet Henry who is now aging in “The Dead Republic”. Henry, a Hollywood mogul, feels the call of home, so he returns to Dublin just as the modern IRA begins its terror campaigns of the 1970’s, so the cycle ends as it begun. While each book is well written and moving, it’s the man-child Henry of the first novel that will stay with me.

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