This is the second installment of Roddy Doyle’s the Last Roundup Trilogy. It’s a jazz novel, sort of, or the Great American Novel as told by an Irish ex-hit man. It’s called Oh, Play That Thing, and despite the tragedy of such a name, we’ll read it because Roddy Doyle wrote it. And that sounds just about right.
His name is Henry Smart, and he’s fleeing to America. Henry’s trying to escape the past that haunts him and the men that are hunting him. New York’s Lower East Side is just the thing. He’s living off charisma, a dab of arrogance, and a good deal of luck. Henry’s on the make. He’s too big for his small life, but he’s got a plan. He sells ads, skims some off the top, hooks up with a bootlegger, and finds the speakeasies. He gets into trouble, naturally, and gets run out of New York.
A brief interlude in the countryside has Henry and the bootlegger’s half-sister running the perfect con: telling fortunes for the locals, pulling good teeth and digging dry wells. The bits with the half-sister are giggle-worthy. They’ve got some drifter-scamp sexiness. And they are all too brief, because trouble follows Henry. It always does.
He lands in Chicago and works in the meat-packing houses. He finds more speakeasies and he finds Dora, the coloured woman who’s too white to be coloured and too coloured to be white. She schools him in turn-of-the-century America’s racial dos and don’ts. He discovers jazz. He gets into trouble with Italian mobsters.
Finally he meets Louis Armstrong and things really start to kick and scream. The half-sister was fun, but Armstrong makes the story zing. The sentences are staccato, the dialogue’s clipped ultra-hep. Armstrong needs a white man to grease his way through white society. Henry is that grease. Hooch flows freely and the whole book oozes jazz. We’ve seen this before-in Ondaatje, in Fitzgerald-but we’re not tired of this yet. The dialogue is fresh; it’s Doyle at his best.
Fate won’t let Henry rest. His wife, Miss O’Shea, turns up in Chicago with their young daughter. They’ve been looking for Henry for six years, but faster than you can say ‘Bunny Hug,’ Armstrong leads Henry back to Harlem.
The half-sister returns as the high priestess of motivational hedonism, and Henry joins her on a madcap sex and religion-fueled jaunt across the country. Then back to Chicago where Miss O’Shea is waiting. Another run-in with the mob and they’re riding the rails. But we’re skimming at best. That’s not all of it, and that’s not the end.
The book finishes, but we’re already waiting for the third installment. And that is the chief complaint. Oh, Play That Thing is Volume Two, and don’t we know it. It doesn’t quite stand alone. There’s too much story, too much punch, too much Henry Smart for its own good. Sometimes it’s fascinating, sometimes tedious. Sometimes it’s a riot. But most of all, it’s a story three books long. We can say this: If Doyle keeps this up, it’ll be a hell of a ride.