It takes Roddy Doyle a while to find his legs in Oh, Play That Thing, a sequel to A Star Called Henry. The Booker Prize-winning novelist has always had a luminous talent for describing place, but here, as he follows protagonist Henry Smart, on the lam from Ireland to the States, the closely observed settings and speech of his native Dublin are replaced with a confusing blur of details from Prohibition-era New York: sandwich boards and jingles, flimflam artists, hooch. Once Henry’s hoofed it to Chicago–this time on the run from mobsters and molls as wells as his old IRA masters–Doyle finds his stride, as does Henry. Where in the earlier novel he fought Zelig-like alongside James Connolly and got his marching orders from Michael Collins, here Henry hooks up with Louis Armstrong in his days at Okeh Records. Doyle nails the giddy abandon of Hot Fives and Hot Sevens tunes like “Irish Black Bottom” and “Gut Bucket Blues” (from which the novel’s title comes), though I have a hard time picturing Armstrong breaking into Prairie Avenue mansions and hocking Marshall Field’s monogrammed spoons. As Henry ages he becomes more and more like his father, the one-legged assassin who disappeared into the earth so many years before. By the novel’s end he’s gone so far as to acquire a peg leg, but even toothless and prematurely old, beaten down by the Great Depression and a long string of narrow escapes, he’s still screaming at the sky: “I am Henry Smart.” Sun 11/14, 4:30 PM, First United Methodist Church, 77. W. Washington, 312-494-9509, $6, $5 in advance. Northwestern University jazz students will perform selections from Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens after the reading.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Amelia Stein.