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The Dead Republic, By Roddy Doyle

The concluding part of Roddy Doyle's historical trilogy makes one pine for his early, funny work

Christopher Bray
Wednesday 31 March 2010 16:50 BST

The good news about the final instalment of Roddy Doyle's "Last Roundup" historical trilogy is that it brings his hero, Republican ne'er- do-well Henry Smart, back to Ireland. Its predecessor, Oh, Play That Thing, took Smart across the pond – and rapidly found itself bogged down in the kind of research-heavy stodge that Doyle's hitherto spring-stepped style had discredited. There is something to be said for an artist keen to conquer new territory, but that shouldn't preclude our commending those who make their own territory stand in for the whole world. Doyle's tenth novel might be called The Dead Republic, but its vision of what Smart calls "the green thing", is as alive as any he has given us.

But what about John Ford's vision of the green thing? The question arises because the book opens in 1951 with Ford arriving in what he always called his mother country, to film The Quiet Man. Riding shotgun as his advisor on all things Oirish is Smart, though their friendship sours as our hero learns that the Tinseltown take on his life story is to be more romantic than republican. Rather like Doyle's own level-headed tale, then, which at one point despatches Ford's star, the redoubtable Maureen O'Hara, to Smart's hotel room ("She was lovely, gorgeous – the words weren't there to put her together") in a sultry bid to get the show back on the road.

The trouble is, we are a third of the way through the book before the night that Smart breaks into Ford's room intent on murder – the first taste of drama Doyle has seen fit to feed us. The bulk of his previous 100 pages have been given over to debates about the plotting and structure and ideological implications of the two men's screenplay. Granting – which one doesn't – that any of this stuff might be remotely true, it is inconceivable that even the most sedulous of movie buffs could find it at all intriguing.

Rather more intriguing is Doyle's audacious faith in narrative coincidence. In Oh, Play That Thing, he had Smart break into a Chicago house only to discover that it was home to the wife he had abandoned in Dublin a decade and more earlier. This time around he has Smart, still smarting from the Hollywood treatment, set himself up as a handyman-cum-gardener, only to discover that the first old lady who hires him is... well, not even Thomas Hardy, mapping out the symmetrical hazards and happenstances of The Mayor of Casterbridge, would have tried it on like that.

None of which would matter if Doyle's pattering wit were up to speed. But Doyle's dialogue these days tends to the lumbering and expository – long, despairing exchanges that leave nothing, not even the ramifications of another potato blight, unsaid. Worse, each character's dialogue is interchangeable with every other, so that you can find yourself tracking backward through a conversation to figure out who's talking to whom.

What we have here is something one had thought impossible: a Roddy Doyle novel that outstays its welcome. So praise be that the book ends on an unambiguous full point. Time, one humbly suggests, for Doyle to abandon history, too, and get back to what he's good at: the humdrum hilarity of the here and now.

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