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Review: The Dead Republic, by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle

Brett Beadle/The Globe and Mail

Fans of the first two novels in Roddy Doyle's ambitious Last Roundup trilogy won't be too surprised to find its central character, Henry Smart, still hopping along on his one good leg in The Dead Republic, the final volume of the series.

Through the trilogy's first two novels - A Star Called Henry (1999) and Oh, Play That Thing (2004) - Henry has cheated death and survived history's cliffhangers more often than a B-movie cowboy.

Doyle, who won the Booker Prize with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993, gained an international following for his exuberant Northside working-class Dubliners in the Barrytown trilogy, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. In the Last Roundup trilogy, Doyle extends his reach beyond present-day Ireland to tackle what Henry calls "the green thing," Ireland's much-mythologized 20th-century history.

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Henry Smart, the trilogy's central character, has been a boy soldier in the 1916 Irish Rising and a hit man during the Irish Civil War. Narrowly escaping to the United States with a price on his head, he spends the Roaring Twenties there, turning his hand to advertising, meatpacking, pornography and bootlegging, to become Louis Armstrong's crony and partner-in-crime.

He lands on the Mob's blacklist, sending him on the run again, this time through America's Dirty Thirties. By the end of Oh, Play That Thing, Henry - minus the leg lost in a boxcar accident - had crawled into the Utah Desert to die, to be saved in the nick of time by Irish-American director John Ford, who happens to be filming My Darling Clementine in Monument Valley.

In The Dead Republic, Henry's violent, often comic collisions with history continue. It's 1951 and, after 30 years, Henry returns to Ireland as John Ford's "IRA consultant" for a movie that Ford has promised will be about Henry's life. But the movie that Ford actually makes, The Quiet Man, has little or nothing to do with Henry. "He knew what I was doing," Henry says. "I was reclaiming my life … I'd tried to tell the truth … but I'd ended up inventing Ireland."

After chastising Ford, Henry's on the move again. The 1960s find him in suburban Dublin, working as a gardener:

"And that was it for years… I'd kneel on the sack and pull away at the plants that looked like the weeds, and I was never wrong.

"- You're a jewel, Henry.

"- Thank you, missis.

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Did I see the beauty that others saw, in the years that I tended the Northside's bigger gardens? I did like fuck.

"- What would I do without you, Henry? Your own fuckin' gardening, missis."

Henry becomes caretaker of a boys' school as "Hoppy Henry," where he runs his own "Republic of Henry," protecting the boys from their more sadistic teachers, noticing the slow improvements in ordinary lives around him.

"I began to wonder if my fight had really been a total waste. The city centre … was still the kip I'd climbed out of. But here, twenty minutes away, the children had parents and coats. There were bedrooms and electricity, the certainty of dinner. Women stopped and chatted to each other, and none of them stood at wet corners, waiting desperately for business. Men came home from work at the same time every day. It was boring, but maybe freedom was supposed to be boring."

Henry may have forgotten history, but history hasn't forgotten Henry: When the Troubles erupt again in the late 1960s, Henry gets caught in a bomb blast in Dublin. He's resurrected as a pawn, a relic of republican legitimacy, by the backroom boys of the Provisional IRA. What exactly are the Provos fighting for? "The copyright, the brand," an IRA man says. "Who owns Irishness, eh? We do. … We've battered all other definitions into submission."

But Henry's never met a ready-made identity he likes. He ricochets off history's grand narratives like a pinball. Whether he's fighting John Ford about "leprechaun Ireland" or dodging the role foisted on him by the Provisional IRA, he sticks stubbornly to the truth of his own gut-level experience, to his own indomitable voice.

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That voice gets drowned out too often in The Dead Republic by Doyle's determination to use Henry as a ventriloquist's dummy for some long-winded musings on media, history and identity. There are too many coincidences, too many drawn-out scenes so Henry can confront prefabricated Irishness, too many jerky fast forwards to the next Big Moment in Irish history.

These reservations aside, Henry Smart remains one of Roddy Doyle's great characters. Funny, laconic, profane, he spits back every role History force-feeds him, and when the octogenarian Henry gets caught in a political riot, even his IRA handlers can't keep him on-script:

"- There's plenty of blood today, said a new voice …

"- You're above all that, Henry, said the voice.

"I couldn't see the man at the front of the van. I was in the back, lying across a damp mattress.

"- We don't want you to be seen bleeding, he said. - You're not flesh and blood.

"- I fuckin' am."

A native Dubliner, Elizabeth Grove-White is a faculty member in the University of Victoria's English department.

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