Roddy Doyle: The sound of the city

Roddy Doyle has plunged his boastful Irish hero into the heart of the Jazz Age. Boyd Tonkin talks to the author about music, myth and the new Ireland
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The Independent Culture

In 1987, Roddy Doyle debuted on the literary stage to a raucous musical fanfare. The young teacher of English and geography self-published The Commitments, and then saw his tale of rock'n'roll redemption in the harsh north-Dublin suburbs race from back yard to big-time (and, thanks to Alan Parker, to the big screen). Now, 17 years, a Booker prize and five successful novels later, another kind of soundtrack soars and throbs behind his rhythmic prose. Oh, Play That Thing (Cape, £16.99) continues the trilogy that began in 1999 with A Star Called Henry, as it sends the boastful, bounding Irish hero to the New York and Chicago of the 1920s Jazz Age.

In 1987, Roddy Doyle debuted on the literary stage to a raucous musical fanfare. The young teacher of English and geography self-published The Commitments, and then saw his tale of rock'n'roll redemption in the harsh north-Dublin suburbs race from back yard to big-time (and, thanks to Alan Parker, to the big screen). Now, 17 years, a Booker prize and five successful novels later, another kind of soundtrack soars and throbs behind his rhythmic prose. Oh, Play That Thing (Cape, £16.99) continues the trilogy that began in 1999 with A Star Called Henry, as it sends the boastful, bounding Irish hero to the New York and Chicago of the 1920s Jazz Age.

As he wrote, Doyle listened constantly to the "furious, happy and lethal" music that floods his book. It shows in almost every sentence. "Sometimes, I play music to mask the human noise outside when my kids are at home," he says. "But mostly, it's to inspire." The larger-than-life Henry Smart befriends and even manages the legend-in-the-making Louis Armstrong, in a partnership that brazenly - but beguilingly - mixes fantasy and documentary. For Doyle, jazz "was part of my upbringing, although the swing music of the 1930s and 1940s would have been more predominant in our house".

In fact, he plunged into the research for Oh, Play That Thing without much of a developed taste for Armstrong and his peers. Then, "as I began to immerse myself in the books about him, I began to grow fond of it - and more than fond." He buzzes with delight at the thought of an "absolutely frantic" 1934 recording of "St Louis Blues" cut by one of Armstrong's bands: "I play that again and again".

In spite of, or beneath, the uproarious comic energy of his prose, Doyle has always been a gently subversive writer: a sharp-witted debunker of all kinds of stage-Irishry and tourist-board Blarney. Perhaps it's fitting that we should discuss his rambunctious yarn about an Irish rebel on the make in the States in (of all stereotype-busting locations) a Russian-themed hotel bar. Soberly but smartly dressed, the former teacher once known in class as "Punk Doyle" comes across as thoughtful, reflective, quietly funny and utterly Blarney-free. By now, much of mainstream Ireland has caught up with his scepticism. He notes that "the notion of our Celtic heritage is up for grabs, because it appears that we're not Celts at all. There used to be an idea of what it meant to be Irish - rural, Gaelic, insular - but a lot of us who grew up in urban Ireland were never in that camp."

His "Barrytown" family trilogy of north Dublin novels can be read not merely as dialogue-driven human comedy, but a fierce portrayal of the failings of a stalled society. The Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha blends foreground mischief into background misery, while The Woman Who Walked Into Doors shocked fans of cuddly Roddy with its grimly empathetic scenes of violence and addiction.

Writing that book, Doyle felt himself "a slave to reality. I was just dying to let rip. I wanted to write a big book, and to have a bit of fun." So The Last Roundup sequence took shape, first with A Star Called Henry. Doyle chucked his hero into violent, erotic (and improbable) escapades across the slums and scams of Edwardian Dublin, and into the ruthless heart of revolutionary struggle. Henry's flight from the shadow of the gunmen matched, in fiction, the revisionist deflation of nationalist myths by historians.

Doyle "always knew that Henry was going to go to America", as any archetypal Irishman should. Once there, he joins a buzzing urban landscape loud with a different sort of myth-making: the flashy styles of hard-sell advertising, of showbiz hype, of the new, dark arts of consumer persuasion. Yet his gangster-plagued stint as a sandwich-man cum-bootlegger on Broadway merely raises the curtain on Chicago, on jazz - and Armstrong.

"The place was wild," purrs Henry - as he roams the Windy City, beds a light-skinned black woman who opens doors into "colored" life for him, and teams up with Louis in the mobster-run speakeasies - "and as new as I was". The fictional Armstrong emerges as supernaturally gifted, personally chaotic but (as he really was) keen not merely to understand but also to record his extraordinary career and times. Doyle notes that Armstrong "bought a typewriter when he was 19 or 20 and carried it around for the rest of his life. He wrote a remarkable memoir, and for many years everyone assumed that it was ghost-written. It was certainly edited - but then all books are."

Later, Louis and Henry hit Harlem as the musicians and writers of black New York buck both prejudice and slump to forge their own, legendary Renaissance. Did Doyle feel any qualms about planting his hero on this holy ground of African-American culture? Did he feel he was trespassing? "Yes," he replies, "but I got over it quickly. Am I entitled? The answer comes back: 'Yeah!' Some people won't agree with me. The answer comes back: 'So what?' The wish to be convincing became more important than my misgivings about my right to be doing this." Besides, a 90-title reading-list namechecks Doyle's sources and might well send enthusiastic readers straight into a DIY course on inter-war black arts.

Oh, Play That Thing rounds off with another example of what its author accepts as "outrageous coincidence", when the battered, middle-aged Henry meets the director John Ford - another Irish myth-spinner. The stage may, perhaps, be set for the elder Henry's return to modern Ireland in the final volume, although Doyle promises that the cliché "Celtic Tiger" will never disfigure any page of his.

Before winding up the trilogy, Doyle plans an interruption: a short novel about Dublin today, in order to register the city's rapid, drastic changes. "The bulk of them are good," he argues. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. Most obviously, it's changed in the variety of accents and origins of the people." Not just Africans, but Americans, Italians and even the English now abound. "The world has come because there's money in the country, in Dublin in particular. I wrote about an unemployed plasterer in The Van. There's no such thing now. The problem would be to find a plasterer."

Although political scares have raised the spectre of ethnic discrimination, Doyle thinks "At heart, the vast majority of Irish people aren't racist. There's very little ideological racism. But there's a lot of smugness: the belief that we're the sexiest people on the planet; that we have a lot to teach the world but the world has nothing to teach us." He adds that, "A lot of us feel comfortable calling ourselves Europeans... But I think we pick and choose what we mean. If, for example, a significant number of black French people decided to work and settle in Ireland - which they would have a perfect right to do - people would look askance at that."

He does appreciate the new and confident pluralism that has loosened the grip of the Roman Catholic hierarchy on education. His three children attend secular state schools, and he welcomes the widening "rift between Church and state. It has happened, it is happening, and for me that's a great thing. As an atheist, I feel very comfortable in Ireland now."

Pope and priests may no longer sit on their pedestals, but Ireland still guards its pieties. During a university teaching stint in New York this spring, in "a casual chat on a Monday night", Doyle half-jokingly suggested that Joyce's Ulysses could have done with a good editor: "It did get a laugh at the time." The literary heavens opened and the Joyceans thundered their outrage. "I was surprised and amused," he says. "I had uttered a blasphemy. We do such a good job of selling ourselves in Ireland. The power of the Church has declined, and other things have become sacred instead. Our literary heritage is among those things."

As for Ulysses, he now concedes that "it is a masterpiece", before adding a very Doylean footnote to this mea culpa - "and there are times when it's a big boy showing off". Doyle never, ever acts the big boy showing off, but in the awesome braggart Henry Smart, he has created one. Readers bewitched by Henry's prose riffs and breaks will hope that it's not too long before his maker plays that thing again.

Biography: Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle was born in 1958 in Dublin, where his father taught printing. After University College Dublin, he became a teacher for 13 years. The Commitments was self-published in 1987 and then sold to a UK publisher. Its successors in the "Barrytown" trilogy were The Snapper and The Van: Alan Parker filmed the first novel; Stephen Frears the other two. In 1993, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker prize. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors appeared in 1996 and, in 1999, the first novel in a historical trilogy, A Star Called Henry. Rory and Ita, a memoir of his parents, came out in 2002. His children's books include The Giggler Treatment and The Meanwhile Adventures (Scholastic). This week, Jonathan Cape publishes Oh, Play That Thing, the sequel to A Star Called Henry. Roddy Doyle lives with his wife and three children in Dublin.

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