oh, play that thing
by Roddy Doyle
(Viking, 384 pages, $24.95)
It must be tempting to write about the New York of the 1920s. Gin runners shot and stabbed each other for territory. Speakeasies hired heavies to man the doors. It was a dangerous, mean, dirty place, and the immigrants who lived on the Lower East Side scrapped and crawled over one another to get to the top. It's the perfect place for Henry Smart to feel at home.
When we last saw the hero of Roddy Doyle's "The Last Roundup" trilogy, he was on the run from IRA assassins. Oh, Play That Thing, the latest installment, opens with Smart arriving at Ellis Island with nothing but the shirt on his back and his wits to live by. This raucous, out-of-control accordion of a book plays the picaresque tune of his adventures.
The problem is, once Doyle cranks out a few bars, the song sounds familiar. Henry Roth and E.L. Doctorow, among other American novelists, have already written extraordinary novels about life on the Lower East Side. Oh, Play That Thing feels like a research project by comparison. Henry attempts to squeeze his way into the marketing business, and he gets squeezed right back out by gangsters who not only own the streets but the people who walk them, too.
It isn't until Henry winds up in Chicago--and blarney meets the blues--that this windy novel earns back a bit of its heft. Henry discovers legendary trumpet player Louis Armstrong, still struggling to get out from behind his band. The jazz musician needs a white man to make him legitimate; Henry needs a cause to attach himself to. As a result, the two fall into a friendship that would make Cornell West proud.
As readers familiar with The Commitments know, Doyle can blow with the best of them. His prose will bop and bang its head to punk, or it will bump and grind to the blues. Doyle wisely stays away from deconstructing Armstrong's songs and simply pays homage to them. "Sweet and Low Down," for example, "was like a quick creep up the stairs; that was how these men were playing it, shoes off, before the light came on and caught us."
Like Albert Murray, who brought to life Duke Ellington in his novel The Seven League Boots, Doyle is never star-struck by the famous musician walking around his pages. His Armstrong is twinkle-eyed and wicked, hugely talented and a lover of women. But most of all, he simply wants to blow that horn, and Henry's job is to make sure he gets paid well for doing it.
Like Murray, Doyle understands that becoming an American--whether you're black or Irish--is a game of improvisation, just like jazz. Murray called this syncopation, or the "also and also" of American life. It's an appropriate phrase for this book as well. Henry can never stop running, or reinventing himself, because people from his past are still trying to kill him.
When Doyle puts Louis Armstrong on the page, Oh, Play That Thing sounds like a hit. But when Henry has to run again, there is simply too much also and also to this book. In the end, he simply wears us out.
Doyle appears Tuesday, Nov. 16, at the First Congregational Church as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures series. 1126 SW Park Ave., 227-2583. 7:30 pm. $8-$13.