The unquiet man
Ex-IRA assassin returns to changed Ireland after brush with Hollywood
Sometimes all a man needs to be right in the world is a new pair of boots. Take Henry Smart, for example. Early in “The Dead Republic,’’ the third volume in Roddy Doyle’s robustly picaresque Last Roundup trilogy about an ex-IRA assassin and the country his acts of violence explode into being, our 47-year-old hero has washed up in the California desert, drunk, missing a leg and most of his memory. The director John Ford has latched on to what’s left of Henry and is determined to make a film of his life, a film that Henry instinctively knows will take what’s left of his dignity.
Henry dodges, he disappears, but once it becomes clear that this film will be made — “The Quiet Man,’’ an actual Ford film of 1952 — the ex-killer settles in and gets some leather on his feet. “The new man, the old man,’’ thinks Smart, peering down at his boots, one of which covers a prosthetic foot. “I was Henry Smart. I wasn’t a ghost or a shadow, a leaking bag of memories and bitterness. I was living. I was breathing in and comfortably out.’’
If you’re new to Henry Smart, a little bit of background might help understand why these simple activities have an aura of the miraculous about them. If it cuts, shoots, or blows up, Henry has been up close and personal with it. In “A Star Called Henry,’’ which spans the Easter Uprising in 1916 to the truce with England in 1921 and slightly beyond, Henry is propelled into violence by a series of terrible losses: his mother, his family, and eventually the lover who turns him into a man.
From his teens onward, Henry lives on the run as if sheer momentum can outrace the Doppler wave of grief. He uses disguises. He abandons Ireland for America, where he has run-ins with the mob, the mercantile swirl of the Jewish Lower East Side. He lights to Chicago, where he hooks up with Louis Armstrong and watches an improvisational American identity coming into being that requires no violence.
“Oh, Play That Thing,’’ the novel that describes Henry’s American adventures, is a curious thing. Like Peter Carey’s masterful new novel, “Parrot & Olivier in America,’’ a fantasy of de Toqueville’s travels in the United States, to read Doyle on Chicago is to watch a novelist from a relatively new republic puzzle out his own national identity by refracting it through a deeply American story.
But there is a limit to how much a writer can throw his voice before he begins to question the point of a national identity, and how much a character can disguise his own identity before losing it entirely. In “The Dead Republic,’’ these two dilemmas collide to produce a rousing, bruising, melancholic work of art. It is also not much of an accident that such a work begins in the film world, with John Ford as a foil.
Ford, after all, was making westerns when the wild, visceral world of frontier life and justice had already died. In fact, it was so long past he wasn’t even eulogizing that period of American life, but rather fantasizing about it — omitting some of the more uncomfortable complexities of America’s past like the genocide of Native Americans and the brutal taming of the land in favor of the grand dilemmas that sell movies.
“The Quiet Man,’’ the 1952 film about a young Irish-American’s trip back to the mother country, is to Irish history as his westerns are to American. “All the references to the war and the I.R.A. had gone,’’ Henry thinks at one point, after he has given in and agrees to help make the film, only to watch Ford gut it of any meaning.
Henry’s rage at this deracination powers “The Dead Republic’’ along, hoisting aloft its big ideas about nationhood and the danger of an ahistorical Irish republic — and even worse, one that fetishizes or makes a spectacle of its history.
The novel is divided into three parts, and it gathers its legs in part two once Henry has returned to Ireland and takes up with a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his long-ago wife, Miss O’Shea. The power and simplicity of these sections are moving, as Henry reacquaints himself with a troubled country — but it also showcases the degree to which the novel’s opening has meandered.
But a little throat-clearing ought to be allowed, for this is a grand project, as its fantastic closing section makes beautifully manifest. The Last Roundup trilogy is Ireland’s Border Trilogy, a sad and moving testament to the senseless violence required to make a nation, and the power of art to both create and cut through the sacred mythologies that nations seem to need. One supposes it helps to have an assassin at the center. An IRA hero who votes to put down arms, who might just wind up a pacifist? It sounds improbable, but it has happened, and in this case, the boot fits.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta.