Oh, Play That Thing by Roddy Doyle

Louis Armstrong and the Irish blow-in
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The Independent Culture


Dialogue, he can do. The words crackle and fizz, jump and fly like the jazz that fills the best parts of this book, as wiseguys and smart broads and heavies and cats jive, badmouth and bullshit their way through prohibition-era New York and Chicago. Just like jazz, the dialogue follows its own rhythms - and sometimes becomes hard to follow, even incomprehensible, until the reader is left disoriented and gasping for the sweet air of clarity like an exhausted flapper dizzied by the drums and the dope.

Roddy Doyle is good at the music, he's good at the moment that Henry Smart, former gunman in the Irish war of independence now on the run in America, hears Louis Armstrong blow his horn and realises there is more colour in the world than he has ever dreamed of. "Nobody danced. Nobody sat. Nobody drank or took a breath..." Musicians will recognise the heady descriptions of what it is like to ride the rhythm, trading the lead; anyone whose skin has prickled at a moment of musical transcendence will find themselves watching Louis. The finest passages, the warmest scenes, describe the evolving relationship between the emerging jazz pioneer and the Irish blow-in who becomes his right-hand man, his bodyguard, the convenient piece of white ass that buys entry to places otherwise forbidden. This is a dazzling evocation of the Jazz Age, guns and trumpets duelling in a frenzy of improvisation, colliding with the boundaries of class and race and music and crime in that brief, frantic moment before the Great Depression.

Henry Smart has left his wife and daughter behind in Ireland and come looking for a place where the vengeful can't find him. He becomes a bootlegger until his old ambition and bravado get the better of him. Handsome, fast-talking Henry inadvertently inspires then manages Sister Flow of the Divine Church of the Here and Now, a positive-thinking guru who briefly becomes a nationwide sensation. And he is burgling a big house one night when he runs into his wife who has followed him to America. They go on the road together, hobos riding the railroad with their children, keeping one foot out of the dustbowl until history has its awful way with Henry again.

Doyle has done his research and it doesn't show (in the sense that it doesn't obstruct but serves the story) when he's recalling Louis Armstrong or moonshine New York. The same is not true elsewhere. The account of arrival at Ellis Island reads like Doyle went home from the tour and wrote down what he had in his notebook. The ending is also a problem: Henry becomes confused and downhearted as his life is torn apart by the Depression, but so does the reader, because the narrative moves so fast and becomes frustratingly sparse in place of the previous loving detail. Concentration is lost. This is the second book in the Last Roundup trilogy, which guarantees an unsatisfactory ending, and closure it ain't. But while the opening may be as bumpy as the railroad Henry rides, and the end is like being thrown on to the tracks, the ride in the middle, with Louis and his golden horn, is magical and marvellous. Play that thing!

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