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Neither farce nor tragedy

A Star Called Henry

Title: A Star Called Henry
By: Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry is the story of the Irish War for Independence and Civil War, told through the cocky first-person narrative of a rebellious former Dublin street urchin. Henry's father was a one-legged brothel bouncer and underworld enforcer who specialized in caving in skulls with his wooden leg. When five-year-old Henry and his little brother start a brawl on the street by telling visiting English King Edward VII to “uck off,” their father is permanently disappeared by the police. Henry grows up on the streets, and ends up one of the lumpen members of James Connolly's socialist Irish Citizen Army, “a member of the union, although I'd never had a job.” The tensions between the class-conscious socialists (and especially Henry, who acts out of his own personal motivations more than out of any idealism) and the more conservative Volunteers during the Easter Rising are highlighted brilliantly.

Later, Henry follows in his father's foot-and-peg-steps and becomes an elite gunman for the IRA, literally carrying his father's wooden leg all the while. He marries his former schoolteacher-for-a-day, Miss O'Shea, who scandalizes the conservative elements in the IRA by becoming a guerrilla fighter and gaining notoriety as “Our Lady of the Machine Gun.” When asked, “Have you any control over your wife at all?” Henry's response is a proud “No.”

Like The Wind That Shakes the Barley, but with more urban swagger and gangsterism, A Star Called Henry examines how revolutions consolidate power for new ruling classes. If only each of those revolutions had as incorrigible a protagonist as Henry, and as witty a storyteller as Roddy Doyle...the world might not be any different, but we'd be a lot better at understanding what was going on and finding the entertainment value in it. Marx wrote that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.” A Star Called Henry occupies the perfect middle ground between the two, without falling into the trap of either.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction

Posted on Aug. 8, 2013 at 3 a.m.

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