A Star Called Roddy

By Irish America Staff
December / January 2005

“I said that Ulysses could have done with a good edit. I didn’t say it could do with a good edit.” Roddy Doyle is clarifying the comments that saw him crowned, for a time at least, Joyce-basher-in-chief. “And I do think that’s true for parts of it. I think it could have been a much better book. This has been interpreted as me saying it should be simplified. Editing is not simplification.”

He made the comments during an otherwise pleasant Monday evening in February in New York, where he was discussing Joyce in the company of Colum McCann and Frank McCourt. Yes, he had a go at the Joyce industry, and yes, he believes Finnegans Wake was “a complete waste of time.” But more of what he said about Ulysses was complimentary, only to have one “casual throwaway remark” come bouncing back to him. At the time, he was teaching for a semester in New York. He came home to Dublin the following weekend, oblivious to the wave about to break over him. That Monday he checked his e-mail. “What the f**k have you been at?” asked a gleeful friend. Someone told him the story had popped up on Icelandic radio; another that it was in the Japanese newspapers.

“Somebody in The Irish Times was calling Colum, because someone had heard I was actually holing up in his apartment. I was on the lam. The Brooklyn Joyceans were out. There was a contract out on me.”

Exasperation is accompanied by good humor. “You normally associate these sort of stories with August.”

Well, it’s August now, and he’s back in the press, although this time for more conventional reasons: there’s a new novel. Oh, Play That Thing is the second in a trilogy tracing Henry Smart’s adventures through the 20(th) century. Doyle quite enjoys this bit — the calm before the reviews. Being reintroduced to something that took up a chunk of his life but which he put down a year ago. Introducing it to everyone else.

“One of the nice things about publishing is that it’s quite slow. There’s usually a year between finishing the book and it coming out. I used to find it frustrating, now I don’t because I suppose that with the first three novels it seemed the be-all-and-end-all. Oh, Play That Thing is the seventh and, although it’s very exciting and I put everything into it, it doesn’t seem as much of a life-or-death situation at all. If the reviews are shire, I’ll lick me wounds and go back to work the following Monday.”

He’s a publisher’s dream, credibility matching the sales. He has a Booker Prize, another nomination. He’s an author that even people who don’t read fiction seem to have read. Yet, he’s had his moments with the critics. With the arrival of a new book comes the familiar rhythm of cheers and wails. As far back as The Van, he recalls, he was getting it in the neck. “If I’d taken on board the advice of, say, The Van reviews in particular, I’d have stopped writing altogether; they were so dismissive. It didn’t matter to me much, as I found either you’re knocked down by these things or you become a bit arrogant. And luckily I became a bit arrogant I suppose, if I wasn’t arrogant already. Well, one man’s arrogance is another’s self-confidence.”

A Booker Prize nomination helped at the time. “Suddenly I became a literary figure because the lads across the water decided to compliment me in this way. And I found it really amusing, that the attitude toward me could change just because of [the prize]. And in a way that was good, because it allowed me to look at these things with a certain detachment.”

Such detachment came in useful the last time around. A Star Called Henry was either “a masterpiece” (The Irish Times) or a novel in which Doyle’s “sparky talent disappears into a black hole” (The Sunday Times). It didn’t help, of course, that by setting it in the period between the 1916 Rising and the Civil War, he had toyed with history, tampered with icons of the Irish State.

In Oh, Play That Thing he tampers again. Henry arrives in America and meets Louis Armstrong. They rob houses together; Henry pops up on some of his early recordings. It is a rounded, sympathetic drawing of a jazz icon, but that will hardly protect Doyle. Didn’t he fear another backlash?

“Not fear as such, but there would be times that I’d write something in the morning and I’d go back in the afternoon and I’d see, oh Jesus I’m going to get in trouble for doing this. This happens every now and again. But I think I got that one out of my system with Family [his television drama]. For instance, one of the main objections to that was the idea that this story was based in a real place, or what was seen as a real place, Ballymun. It was the location, although it was never named. And there were huge objections to it, and I listened to them but I didn’t think they were…I wouldn’t say they weren’t legitimate, but I wouldn’t say they were strong.”

His interest in Louis Armstrong, he says, was a “happy accident,” developed when reading a review of a biography during a long train journey. He read how a black doorman had once told the New Yorkbound Armstrong that “if you want to make it up there, get yourself a white man to put his hand on your shoulder and say `this is my nigger.'” He decided that Henry would be that white man (although he later made it a little more complicated than that); that he would navigate the eddies of a violent, racially stratified America, while embracing the growth of jazz.

“I think people of my generation remember Louis Armstrong as this sort of elderly grinning man on the Andy Williams Show in the 1960s, who wrote and sang `What a Wonderful World,’ which was lovely, and `Hello Dolly,’ which was absolutely appalling, and would know little else about him. And I think what I tried to do was give the man a brain and try to depict the fight that he and every other black American artist would have had and still probably does have to be allowed to express himself.”

In person, Doyle races along, quite breathlessly at times, through sometimes open-ended sentences. He frequently breaks into a wide grin that lights up his entire face, pushes his ears back, that seems to envelop even the shorn scalp. It is quite at odds with his famously succinct writing style, although Oh, Play That Thing continues his move into richer, broader literature that is less reliant on dialogue and that uses the eyes as well as the ears. Opening with Henry’s arrival at Ellis Island, the writing is evocative and quietly epic; yet retains a vital intimacy. What is most obvious about this novel, though, is that it is his first set outside of Ireland and it never steps foot in Dublin.

“It was a challenge. In one way the story was there anyway, because I knew after a while in A Star Called Henry that he wasn’t going to be able to stay in Ireland. And America was the logical place to send him.”

Doyle has, he says, posed himself challenges throughout his career. “When I was starting The Snapper, I wanted to write in the same style of The Commitments, but I wanted it to be much more intimate, which was why I chose the pregnancy. I knew nothing about pregnancy and wasn’t at all interested at the time. But I thought, well go at it. And it was the same with Paddy Clarke when I decided, after The Van, that enough is enough of that, let’s see if I can write in the first person. And with The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, the challenge there is obvious. Whether successful or not is another thing.”

With A Star Called Henry, the challenge was to step out of domestic drama and into a “vaster canvas.” In Oh, Play That Thing, while he stays largely in the cities — New York then Chicago — he eventually stretches himself across that canvas in an audacious manner. Henry travels across America and through the years, during sweeping, ambitious passages that are far from the kitchens and housing estates that Doyle had previously stalked, and which culminates in as sudden and surprising an ending as you’re likely to read.

“I was dying to get out of those little jazz clubs and the confinements of every city and to go out in the great open space and to invent it in a way with a language of my own. And it’s some of the bleakest writing but at the same time I really, really enjoyed doing it.” By the time he’d finished the novel he was, he says, “sick of research.”

The original plan had been to live in the U.S. for a while, but circumstances conspired to prevent that. Instead, he immersed himself in a mini-library of research, while also reaching deep into memory and grabbing whatever else passed by.

“I watched White Heat recently with me kids. Films like that never get any less good. And I had read the fiction of the 1920s, some of them 25 years ago. And it all began to come back. I’m quite content being alive today in Dublin, but it seemed to me that if I wasn’t I think that the U.S. — New York or Chicago — in the 1920s would be fascinating, you know.”

Henry might wash up on American shores, but Doyle wasn’t interested in drawing deeply from the Irish emigrant experience. “Henry doesn’t want to be Irish. I think that, to an extent, is me, because when you’re an Irish author abroad there’s a pressure on you to become Irish. But you don’t want to be representative of your country, especially when you go to somewhere like Boston. You kind of end up being strait jacketed into this notion of what Irish is. Especially when The Commitments came out. Here was a kind of liberation, in that they were playing black American music and suddenly then that was `Irish music.’ And I’ve always kind of fought that, kicked against that notion.”

When word got out that he was setting the novel in the U.S., he received a lot of offers of help from Irish-American experts. But it’s a subject he finds “quite tedious.”

“Henry is more interested in burying himself in something different, although as he finds out, that’s always impossible anyway. That was always going to be the message, too.”

There will be a third Henry Smart novel — in which he returns to Ireland — but not yet. If this novel took his imagination outside of Dublin, he has found the need to return his mind to the city outside his window. “Dublin is changing and has been changing and yet I was spending most of my working day immersed in the past. So I thought I’d like to do something more contemporary and that’s what I’m doing now.”

He doesn’t want to reveal what that will be about, but admits that he struggles a little to catch the new Dublin. It is no longer the Dublin he was born into in 1958, hardly recognizable as that which he adapted for The Barrytown Trilogy. “I suppose the simplicity of the earlier books was that it was all there, all around me, all day. Now, the circumstances of my life have changed. You know, I’m older for a start. I’m more housebound than I used to be because of the three children. They bring home information for me, although they don’t know it. The priorities of my life are different than they would have been, and Dublin just seems like a bigger place. Although I still think if you have a good street or a good road, you just create this yourself, you can capture the time and place very well.”

Irish writers have been slow to deal with the changes of the past decade, although he believes that Keith Ridgeway’s The Parts is “quite brilliant” in its depiction of contemporary Dublin. Doyle admits that “west Dublin’s a complete mystery to me. I don’t think I could ever write anything from there.” He has, though, been quietly chipping away at the evolving story of the new Irish. His film, When Brendan Met Trudy, featured a storyline involving an immigrant facing deportation. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a stage version of the famous movie, updated to modern Dublin. He writes stories for the multi-cultural newspaper Metro Eireann.

“Politically, I suppose I don’t say anything that hundreds of thousands of people don’t share. I’ve nothing original to say whatsoever. But I did want to get involved in some sort of celebratory way that would write stories that would enjoy the difference between people, have that running up against each other and linguistic misunderstandings.”

How does he think Ireland has coped with the change in its population? “I think it’s in a way too early to start talking about it. It goes back to my feelings about six years ago when people were too quick to jump to conclusions. Even after the recent referendum — in which I’ve got to say, the amount of people in favor of the change [In June, 2004 Irish voters decided that children born of foreign parents were not Irish citizens unless one of the parents had been legally resident for three years], that shocked me — but I wasn’t ready to accuse 80 per cent of the population of racism, because I really don’t know their motivation. But I don’t think there’s much ideological racism. What there is is based on ignorance and I think in some ways we’ve coped quite well and in other ways feebly. But I don’t feel qualified to make sweeping conclusions about it yet.”

His back catalogue is extensive, between plays, children’s books, film scripts, novels. Even now, he is working on a film script based on his children’s book The Giggler Treatment, while planning the next novel. “I’ve never suffered from anything remotely like block.”

What is he most proud of? “Probably The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, because it’s challenging. In some ways it’s probably the least typical of them as well. I suppose the subject matter is so grim. That’s the one I would want preserved if the others had to disappear.” He halts at that idea for a moment. “It’s a horrible notion.” Of the films, he says he’s happiest with The Snapper.

He refuses to play up false modesty over everything he’s done. “You’re supposed to say you think they’re dreadful but I don’t.” He says that he doesn’t dwell too much on what’s gone before, although a couple of recent encounters with his old work showed that distance is bringing him closer to the older works.

“I watched The Commitments for the first time in years and I felt proprietorial about it for the first time. I really felt, oh that’s mine. Whereas in the past I switched it off and decided, that has nothing to do with me. I just got impatient with the lads continuing to call themselves The Commitments and tour to smaller and smaller venues. But now, looking back on it — I suppose I haven’t read it in years, but if I read it I probably wouldn’t feel the urge to change a word. I’m quite happy. I worry a piece of work so much, and I keep on at it, that it’s really as good as it’s ever going to be by the time I hand it over.”

With two sons beginning their teenage years, he also finds himself reintroduced to his past through them. He had deliberately walked away from Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, for instance, when the Booker Prize win turned it into “a monster.”

“I had to work at ignoring it. Not turning up at dinners and things like that, just getting on with life. I decided I wouldn’t have anything to do with Paddy Clarke again, to the extent that of all the work I’ve done, I probably feel most distant from it. Only recently one of my children read it and I brought him around Kilbarrack where I grew up, and although it’s not about me, the raw material is obviously inspired by my own childhood. Then I began to feel closer to the book.”

He has no interest in writing a memoir to go alongside what he wrote on his parents, Rory and Ita. “Who want to know that I made the kids’ breakfast, then wasted me day for a while?” His life is in the books, anyway, “using myself to create other situations. Imagining myself in those situations. So actually in a way I’m writing about myself all the time. I’m beginning to recognize it all the time now, where sometimes it took years to catch up.”

Is he content? “No. Yes, at times. But generally no. I suppose there are times when I’m happy. But happiness is something which is difficult to sustain. There are times when I’d be far from content. But I don’t feel a burning need to burden you with them. At the moment I feel grand.” What does stress him out? “Ooh,” he grins, “I’m not going to go there.” ♦

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