A Star Called Henry
by Roddy Doyle
Published by Knopf
344 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Roddy's Rising Star
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
In a book season filled to bursting with memoir-style novels and books about all manner of Irish stuff, A Star Called Henry stands apart. Booker Prize-winning author Roddy Doyle brings us the story of Henry Smart, born in the slums of Dublin in 1902, the son of a one-legged whorehouse bouncer and a woman possessed of a beautiful name and little else.
Dublin-based Doyle is the author of five previous novels, among them The Commitments, for which Doyle also co-wrote the screenplay, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, for which he won the Booker.
In the opening passages of A Star Called Henry, Doyle explains the book's cryptic title:
My mother looked up at the stars. There were plenty of them up there. She lifted her hand. It swayed as she chose one. Her finger pointed.
-- There's my little Henry up there. Look it.
I looked, her other little Henry sitting beside her on the step. I looked up and hated him. She held me but she looked up at her twinkling boy. Poor me beside her, pale and red-eyed, held together by rashes and sores. A stomach crying to be filled, bare feet aching like an old, old man's. Me, a shocking substitute for the little Henry God had wanted for himself. Poor me.
And poor Mother. She sat on that step and other crumbling steps and watched her other babies joining Henry. Little Gracie, Lil, Victor, another little Victor. The ones I remember. There were others, and early others sent to Limbo; they came and went before they could be named. God took them all. He needed them all up there to light up the night. He left her plenty, though. The ugly ones, the noisy ones, the ones He didn't want -- the ones that would never stay fed.
Doyle's voice never falters as he tells Henry's story. It is absolutely compelling and beautifully real: even when the images he gifts us with are less than lovely.
The Dublin that Doyle paints is filled with hunger and death and ugliness. Ripe, in fact, for rebellion. Which is just what happens: both in Doyle's story and in history. But that's later. First we travel with Henry through his very early years. At five, he and his younger brother Victor take to the streets. It's not so much a decision as a happening. There is nothing to be eaten and nothing to keep them warm in the series of tenements they call home. And so the two beg and steal and otherwise eke out their meager -- yet richer -- existence.
These early chapters fairly hum with the certainty of Doyle's craft. His re-creation of the slums of Dublin is real enough to be frightening yet, because it's Doyle, there are passages rich in the humor that fills Real Life.
And then puberty and with it, revolution. At 14, Henry is already six-foot-two and feels he's been a man for a long time. He finds himself in the General Post Office on Easter Monday, 1916 in a uniform he's paid for himself by stealing and begging. He's a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Republic will, at least in part, be born under his hands. He becomes one of Michael "Mick" Collins' boys: a cop killer and assassin.
-- Do you have any scruples about the taking of a life?
Dick McKee had asked the question just before I'd been sworn into the Squad. They were looking for a strange mix of man -- dissident and slave, a man who was quick with his brain and an eejit. They knew what they were doing when they chose me; I was quick and ruthless, outspoken and loyal -- and such an eejit it took me years to realise what was going on.
Considering the nature of his work, Henry Smart is an amazingly likable character. He is at once conscienceless and compassionate; faithful and feckless; brilliant and an "eejit." And, somehow, Doyle pulls it all off in a character as memorable and real as any in recent fiction. It's a good thing, too: Doyle has planned A Star Called Henry as volume one of a trilogy. Since book one ends while Henry is 20, there seems to be lots of room for more to his tale. I can hardly wait. | October 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.