A review of Oh, Play That Thing by Roddy Doyle

Henry is larger than an ordinary man, and his longing and failings are so beautifully conveyed that it pulls the whole novel together. The story is almost breathlessly engaging at times, especially when Henry is facing the gun, and Doyle’s love of language, and ability to traverse the homeless character of the exile is obvious. Although the setting is rich and evocative, it is almost besides the point. Oh, Play That Thing is more poetry than prose, and will insinuate itself with high energy and low humour under the reader’s skin.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Oh, Play That Thing
By Roddy Doyle
Random House
ISBN 0224074369, Sept 04, Hardcover, RRP $A49.95

Henry Smart was on top of the world–young handsome and successful number one hitman for the IRA. He was a man with money and a cause he believed in, until the cause revealed itself as corrupt as those it fought against, and the hunter became hunted, fleeing Ireland for the apparently safer shores of the USA. This back story comes from A Star Called Henry, the prequel to Oh, Play That Thing. Oh, Play That Thing picks up, in a similar fashion to the very different memoir, Frank McCourt’s Tis, with Henry arriving at Ellis Island, a new man with a new name, a new identity, and a long trail of ghosts he would rather keep hidden. You don’t need to have read cite>to enjoyOh, Play That Thing, a book full of high energy exuberance, and a fast paced, jazz inspired plot, since the back story is made fairly obvious from the start. The ghosts don’t remain hidden for long, and despite Henry’s wanderings and attempts at staying as unencumbered and invisible as possible, his past tends to lurk around every corner.

The book takes place between 1924-1946 and is filled with the gaiety and indulgence of flappers, gangsters, and bootleggers, and moves into the desperation of the depression. Throughout most of the book Henry remains wide eyed, positive about his future, and full of his own beauty and libido. Though sloppy and a little overblown at times, it’s hard not to get caught up in Henry’s own sense of wonder and promise, even at his lowest moments. Although nothing extraordinary happens to defy the laws of realism, there is a certain amount of mental magic which underpins the story. The coincidences are too strong; the characters at times are stereotypical caricature, and the language and happenings almost too poetic and idiomatic. You could almost imagine the dialogue as part of a Broadway musical like West Side Story: “It‘s a land of gold, daddio. Only, the gold ain‘t in the streets. It‘s in your head. Believe that?” (45). This exaggeration doesn’t really hamper the narrative though, since the story never gets too bogged down in place or setting. Henry has a kind of glow about him–a positive sense of self which creates its own magic:

And I began to wonder if there wasn’t real magic there. It wasn’t the palms or coffee grounds, but I wondered if she could really read, without the usual props of the con. She could feel those knots of unhappiness; and it was easy enough, then, to untie them. And I wondered if some of that magic didn’t come from me, from rubbing up to me. It was coming back, the feeling – the glow. I was, remember, the miracle baby. I’d made women feel special, not that long ago, as they gazed down at me in my padded zinc crib. I could still see and feel their eyes years after they walked away, with light in eyes that had been dead for years…(110)

This sense of being magically endowed is further bolstered by a character known primarily as the “half-sister” who teaches Henry “autosuggestion,“ an early form of Neuro-Linguistic Programming:

That’s all you need. You just grab that thing and pump him, and not too often, I guess. You’re cooking. But it’s the handwork’s the thing. Repetition. That’s the key. Saying it, again and again. Up and down. Every day, in every-y way, I am getting, better, and better. Until you don’t have to believe it any more.” (44)

In his new wordplay pseudonym of Glick, Henry takes on a variety of jobs, including bootlegger, and sandwich board man, where his literary and influencing skills are combined to produce advertising magic. It isn’t the illegal bottles of home brew which he sometimes carries under his board that make him rich and famous, but rather the words he writes. In short, Henry is a salesman par excellence and his silky words promise a magic which focuses solely on the needs and desires of the buyers. His signs are seductive, flattering, and they bring in the customers. This magic persuasiveness comes to a head when Henry and the half-sister flee New York after a run in with gangsters unhappy with Henry’s success, and form a kind of Church together, preaching desire and practising dentistry in a small town called Sweet Afton. Once again, the combination of confidence, persuasiveness and sexy good looks works its magic for the town and creates enough of an impact to get Henry in serious trouble. Doyle’s prose is as seductive and poetic as Henry‘s, and creates an evocative main character whose motivations and fears come from a place deeper than the present:

I could feel the water, but it was different here. It wasn’t flowing, rushing, the water of escape. I was on top of still water. Stagnant, ancient, evil. I could feel it, warm oily, creeping to my feet. I tried to move. The shouts and screams of the city’s throats and engines drowned the cries of the dead that were held by that water below. I suddenly knew that they were there. There were no black faces walking past me, and none driving the trucks and automobiles that fought for passage between the barrows –I’d never noticed the absence–but they were below me, and not far below, their bloody, soil-blacked fingernails inches from my feet, hanged men, mutilated rebel slaves, trapped forever in water that went nowhere. And more dead men below them, red men, screaming to be heard, screaming their defeat and rage.(47)

Henry’s ability to sense similarly repressed races is part of the subtle magic which underlies the book. In Doyle’s earlier novel, The Commitments, one of the band members calls the Irish “the niggers of Europe,” and this alignment between black Americans and the Irish is a theme continued in Oh, Play That Thing when Henry leaves Sweet Afton (hiding, depression style, under a boxcar) for Chicago, and comes into contact with a fictionalised Louis Armstrong, who takes him on as minder, keeping other would be “owners” away. At this point the novel is infused with Armstrong’s music and Henry’s appreciation and takes on a fluid and very rich quality:

The names danced among the crazy lights that jumped from the mirror ball above the dance floor. He was dancing now as he played, as if his legs were tied to the notes that jumped from the bell o fhis horn. His steps were crazy but he was in control. He was puppet and master, god and disciple, a one-man band in perfect step with the other players surrounding him. His lips were bleeding – I saw drops fall like notes to his patent leather shoes – but he was the happiest man on earth. (135)

Doyle is quite irreverent with Armstrong’s memory, and the story has its own impetus which is quite different from the naturalistic form. This isn’t really history in any black and white sense of the word. The helf-sister, who reappears as Florence Grattan-McKendrick, or Sister Flow, head of her own sensationalist, sexy church speaks in overblown aphorisms, and the reunion with and split from nameless schoolteacher wife Miss O’Shea and daughter and son are boys-own style Bonny and Clyde adventures which no parent could map out with any sense of reality. The film crew ending is just a wee bit pat, as are the continual connections in the most strained circumstances with characters from the past. That said, Henry is larger than an ordinary man, and his longing and failings are so beautifully conveyed that it pulls the whole novel together. The story is almost breathlessly engaging at times, especially when Henry is facing the gun, and Doyle’s love of language, and ability to traverse the homeless character of the exile is obvious. Although the setting is rich and evocative, it is almost besides the point. Oh, Play That Thing is more poetry than prose, and will insinuate itself with high energy and low humour under the reader’s skin.

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