This follow-up to Roddy Doyle's rambunctious and courageous A Star Called Henry is every bit as fiery, if not more so. Like such recent books as Darin Strauss' The Real McCoy, Doyle's latest novel shows us an entire period through the eyes of one character in this case, an Irish renegade assassin. Doyle, an Irishman himself, displays great sensitivity for the nuances of the American vernacular of the '20s and '30s and convincingly portrays the American national character at that time, by turns downtrodden and explosively arrogant.
Henry Smart, on the run from his stormy IRA past, leaves his wife and comes to America to try to reconstruct his dignity and build a new legacy. Upon arrival, he becomes a succession of different Henrys. One is a smashing sign painter and salesman, whose con-artistry brings his employers success. Another is the assistant, or "white man," to the young trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The master musician, as Doyle portrays him, is a true rake. From his drug habits to his love of female flesh to his willingness to accompany Henry on criminal capers, Armstrong is far from the wooden historical figure one might expect.
On his haphazard journey across the continent, Henry finds himself at last reunited with his tougher-than-tough wife. He also comes face to face with many criminals who are none too happy to see him. Doyle's dialogue reads like a hybrid of classic-movie chatter and near-gnomic condensation. This mixture makes the book sashay right out of its historical-novel trappings. The quirks here the way the characters constantly say "yare"(for yes), or Armstrong's semi-grammatical utterances, which tamp the depiction of his virtuosity, give this work extra zip. Oh, Play That Thing charges along in a suspenseful manner, but not without a fair bit of craft on Doyle's part not willing to sacrifice poetry for action, the accomplished author instead merges the two.
Max Winter writes from New York City.