By Roddy Doyle
Viking. 329 pp. $26.95
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Reviewed by Glenn C. Altschuler
Roddy Doyle's grandfather was a partisan of the Irish Republican Army. In most respects gentle and nice, he almost certainly used the gun he buried in 1922 and dug up 17 years later.
That's the anomaly - a moral man in an immoral society - that Doyle has tried to capture in his Henry Smart trilogy, A Star Called Henry (1999), Oh, Play That Thing (2004), and (now) The Dead Republic.
Like Doyle's grandfather, like all of us, Henry is a good man. Sometimes. A 1916 Easter Rebellion fighter and an IRA assassin, he was last seen on the Lower East Side of New York City, and then in Monument Valley, Calif., where Henry Fonda saved his life. As The Dead Republic opens, he's back in Ireland, with director John Ford, to make The Quiet Man, a film that's supposed to be based on his life. Appalled at the sentimental script, he finds a job as a caretaker in a boys' school, only to be pulled back as an old man in the 1970s and '80s into the struggle that "sucked the Dublin air."
A challenging novel, by turns funny, romantic, suspenseful, and dark, The Dead Republic is a meditation on the manipulation of "history." And a penetrating portrait of a society apparently intent on killing everything young, where "the dead walked - until they died, too."
Doyle's deconstruction of John Ford, the mythmaking reactionary, is a tour de force. An Irishman, Ford has earned honorary membership in America, he tells Henry, by giving his audiences John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, a "brand new politics," and "all that hokum about the American Way." Equally important, he's kept the nation's "secret" that millions of immigrants "will never make the grade . . . . They'll grab at new religions or try to buy their way in. But it'll never be enough."
The heart and soul of the novel, however, is Doyle's searing and savage indictment of Irish politics - and the devastation of the country he loves. Useful to one rebel faction or the other as a symbol, or "an old rediscovered fact," much as he had been useful, for a time, to John Ford, Henry realizes that politics "was religion, and so, it was madness. It was the sanctity of words. Republic or free state. Choose the wrong one and you were damned. Choose the right one and you were dead . . . . I was their walking legitimacy, but - for now - I was the only one who knew it was a lie."
While the men kneecapped, kidnapped, and killed one another, Doyle writes in unforgettable prose, their sons became "ancient teenagers," yellow and gray, "taking over the corners that their fathers hadn't already taken." And the girls, with traces of their mothers still in their faces, became junkies pushing buggies, "punctured and pumped up, fat and skeletal in the space of a week."
The Dead Republic ends with only a hint of the prospects for peace in Ireland. Henry Smart, who was there when the Republic was declared, is in the room, giving his assent, when Sinn Fein drops its opposition to running candidates in elections for the Free State parliament. At long last, and against all odds, he'd "done the right thing."
To be sure, the war raged on, "they" smuggled diesel and trafficked in heroin, "the splits had to be dealt with and corralled. Good suits had to be bought, bad hands had to be shaken."
Nonetheless, "the end had started." Was it a good time, the right time, to die? Or, Doyle asks us to ask, might Henry, Ireland's smart bomb, get to live - and laugh - in the promised land?