by Roddy Doyle
Jonathan Cape, pounds 16.99, 343pp
RODDY DOYLE made his reputation by tackling all kinds of topical delinquency in Dublin's housing estates, and tempering every scrubby scenario with a sizeable dollop of charm. is a rarer kettle of fish. It's a vibrant work of fiction which signals a change of direction: backwards into social history, and sideways to take an enterprising swipe at the origins of the whole Irish republican myth.
This is a tricksy novel which goes about its work of deconstruction or deflation by way of its opposite. It inflates everything within its compass: the privations of the streets, sexual licence in turn-of-the-cen tury Ireland, anarchic inclinations of every variety, most of all its central figure, Henry Smart. His story is fashioned straight out of a hero tale, but at the same time gives a voice to every down-to-earth freedom fighter who didn't actually "give a shite about Ireland".
Henry, born in 1901, is a product of the rankest environs as well as being an exceptional learner. By the age of five he is fending for himself. "I was at home in the rags and scarcity, dirt and weakness. And there were new things too, colour, laughter, chaos and escape. It was glorious." He shares a name not only with his hitman father (a hefty whorehouse bouncer with a wooden leg), but with a dead sibling metamorphosed into a star in the sky. "There's my little Henry," announces his wispy young mother, pointing upwards. But living Henry isn't confined to a single moniker. He has aliases aplenty: Fergus Nash, and Brian O'Linn after the farcical Irish ballad, and even (whisper it) the great shape-shifter himself - Michael Collins, the Big Fellow on his bicycle attending to Ireland's business and pulling the wool over rozzers' eyes.
Henry, in fact, is an amalgam of the legendary attributes of all the rogues and heroes, the chancers and charmers, who people the political drama. He doesn't exist: that's one of the points about him. A prodigious impossibility is all he is.
Figment or not, Henry is conspicuously in on the major events of the day. It's 1916, and here he is in the GPO in Dublin (aged 14 but looking older) in his Citizen Army uniform, brandishing his da's wooden leg - a talismanic object that accompanies him everywhere - along with his out- of-date rifle, and turning the Post Office into Liberty Hall by rogering a republican schoolteacher named Miss O'Shea while incendiary bombs start to fall on the city.
All this is cause for elation, even after the surrender, after the destruction. "I'd wrecked the place," thinks Henry, looking at ruined Sackville Street. After the revolution, "every reminder of the Empire" is scheduled to he obliterated. "I loved the idea of knocking down Dublin", stamping out injustice and inequality. Never mind if every architectural jewel goes down the plughole too.
Henry exemplifies, among other things, the notable Irish absence of an instinct for conservation. In the meantime, after the uprising, he escapes imprisonment by diving down a manhole - his daddy's leg being a divining rod as well as a weapon - and making good use of his knowledge of Dublin's sewage system. A legend, the stuff of ballads and rumours, half-truths and creative falsities, begins to crystallise around Henry.
Henry is a device which allows the exuberant author to analyse the mechanics of revolutionary movements past and present. It's plain to see, for example, that hotheads and troublemakers are first recruited and afterwards jettisoned, as inevitable expedients, about-turns and manipulations adulterate the primary - or imaginary - idealism. It's all a con, but some people prefer to keep under their hats - their tricolour ribboned hats.
This novel has it both ways, with its stupendous play-acting and demystifying bent. If Henry seems, at times, a cross between Cuchulain and a comic- strip character, he is also a conduit for productive scepticism about political sleights-of-hand. In Doyle's ambidextrous hands, the making of modern Ireland gets a vigorous and illuminating run-down.
With its rich cast of characters, real and unreal - Madame MacBride the atrocity-monger, Alfie Gandon the death dealer and eventual government high-up - the novel offers endless scope for picking up symbolic implications. You can read as much or as little as you like into its overlay of ornamentation. But its historical and social, not to mention socialist, insights are always to be taken seriously. The author long ago took a stand against cant, mealy-mouthedness and gobshite. In this novel he is on the attack - with aplomb and a high heart.Reuse content