Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry
Reviewed by Christopher Hess, Fri., Oct. 1, 1999
A Star Called Henryby Roddy Doyle
Viking, $24.95 hard
The newest novel from the author of the loudly praised Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a dark and beautiful narrative that administers the Irish oral tradition to a startling and wonderful new cast of characters, many of whom you already know from history and legend alike. Henry Smart curses King George VII in the street, and he stands alongside Michael Collins in dark pubs planning the Irish Rebellion, but in the end he's no one, a nameless wraith who had as much to do with guiding the tumultuous political history of Ireland as anyone who claimed the credit.
Henry Smart becomes over time one of the most respected and feared soldiers for the blossoming IRA in the war for Irish independence, and the road to that distinction is bloody and harsh indeed. From the 1916 Easter Rising through his incarceration a few short years later, Henry's battles follow the course of the Irish rebellion, a life lived many times over while the protagonist is still in his teen years. It's not nearly so clear-cut as to say that Henry Smart's life is one spent in the pursuit of freedom for Ireland. And neither can Henry's eventual turning away from the IRA be seen as a refutation of the philosophies or tactics employed in the ongoing fight for Irish independence, fueled as it is by duties to self over country. This preservationist instinct corresponds perfectly to the self-sustaining motivations that guide the course of his entire existence. In that sense, as can be said of mythological figures from Perseus to Rob Roy, Henry Smart is indeed a hero.
A Star Called Henry is appropriately epic in the telling if not in its relatively brief chronological span. Henry Smart is a dread savior, a vomitous angel, a dangerous and lovable kid whose actions bring consequences he cannot and does not truly fathom. The book is full of shocking scenes (which is how they read, like visual sequences set to film), but none so shocking as the realization at book's end of how short a time has lapsed throughout the story. Bawdy, violent, crude, even disgusting, A Star Called Henry is a potent and compelling piece of narrative, a rags-to-infamy story that can stack up word for weighty word against the brightest of Ireland's storytellers.