By Philip Watson
(Esquire, September 2004)
Roddy Doyle walks into his agent’s office in George’s Street in Dublin clutching a bulging Tower Records bag. He has just been shopping for CDs. A lifelong enthusiast who says he’ll “take music from any direction”, Doyle has bought a characteristically catholic selection: from the urban chronicles of The Streets to avant-rockers Sonic Youth and alt-country innovators Wilco (see sidebar, below).
While music – from the dirty Dublin soul of his debut novel, The Commitments, onwards – has been present in all Doyle’s work, and he tells me that he always listens to music when he writes (“mostly minimalists such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich”), this month the 46-year-old writer moves the subject far more centre stage.
Oh, Play That Thing follows the misadventures of 23-year-old Henry Smart as he lands in America after fleeing Ireland; it is 1924 and “the land of the itch” is alive with opportunity, energy, fast women, danger, speakeasies – and new music. Forced out of New York by the mob, he escapes to jazz-age Chicago, a city in which “music is being born every minute” and where he befriends and helps protect its biggest and brightest star: Louis Armstrong.
Doyle says that what first drew him to the jazzman was his personality. “My image of him was of this benign, smiling, elderly man who played the trumpet and sang such popular songs as `What A Wonderful World’ with that gravely voice. But then I discovered there was an awful lot more going on. For one thing, he was a musical genius. If you listen to a track from the 1920s such as `West End Blues’, there’s something really immediate and joyful about it – it is actually timeless. Some of his early music is some of the best ever recorded.”
Although claiming to be “wary of artists and pain – it’s one of the great clichés”, Doyle was fascinated by how Armstrong’s vocal talents only emerged when he began singing in an effort to save his lips. “The man would regularly spit blood when he played. And then there was his political importance as a high-profile black man, which brought me to the whole area of race, which is never a historical subject.”
Like its prequel, 1999’s A Star Called Henry – in which our protagonist progresses from the brutal Dublin slums to legendary roles fighting in the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent War of Independence – it is Doyle’s careful research and distinctive eye for detail that creates such a rich and evocative picture of the time. His portrait of Armstrong is especially vivid and engaging.
Doyle says it wouldn’t surprise him though if some jazz devotees criticised his portrayal of the jazzman – just as Republican diehards objected to his irreverent take on the near mythical leaders of the Irish Civil War – yet he “falls back on the line that I’m telling a story – the geography and history may be familiar, but it has Henry Smart’s unique take on it”.
Smart is the engine of the novel and he may be irresistibly appealing, but he is also deeply flawed. He is armed with ample ingenuity, good looks and an unerring self-confidence – he is cocky, charming and sharp-tongued. Yet he is also cynical, selfish and amoral, a ruthless killer and deluded “great fucking eejit” who rarely lives up to his surname.
“Henry is certainly an unreliable narrator – as are we all I suppose – although he certainly makes himself heard,” says Doyle. “He is struggling to find his identity right from the beginning – he has that urge to shout and proclaim himself.”
All Doyle’s novels have been critically lauded and hugely popular, with the “Barrytown Trilogy” – The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van – being made into successful films, most notably Alan Parker’s 1990 version of The Commitments. Yet he wears his fame lightly and not entirely comfortably. While there is a certain steeliness and prickly confidence to him in conversation, Doyle is, for a novelist who has created some of the funniest and most memorable characters in modern literature, surprisingly reserved. He has a clean-shaven head, wears a leather jacket, and has a discreet stud in his left ear (an addition that led to him being called “Punk Doyle”), yet his studious wire-rimmed glasses and generally affable manner give him away as the conscientious English teacher he was until 1993.
Despite living close to the north Dublin suburb of Kilbarrack in which he was born, Doyle mostly goes about his business unhindered. “A lot of people haven’t got a clue what I look like,” he says, “so I can walk around Dublin and they’ll leave me alone.”
Still, his leftwing, atheist sympathies mean that he often ruffles feathers, and he certainly confounds expectation. He followed the three comic and poignantly optimistic Barrytown books, for example, with the bleaker, Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, in which the disintegration of a marriage is seen through the unsentimental eyes of a 10-year-old boy.
Oh, Play That Thing and A Star Called Henry also represent a dramatic change, away from his domestic milieu and on to a far broader canvas: they are the first two in a projected trilogy of historical novels that explores some of the key events in 20th century Irish and American life.
While the novel occasionally stretches credulity – Henry becomes almost Forrest Gump-like in his ability to pop up at and shape historical events – the novel fizzes with Doyle’s typically authentic and raucous dialogue, from Henry’s blarney and bluster, to the hip “daddio” street-speak of early black urban America.
Doyle’s evolving style and assurance is also fascinating to observe – the novel is a more obviously literary experiment with, and paring down of, language, structure, punctuation and form. It perfectly captures both the fragmentary nature of the time and Henry’s state of mind.
Historical fiction, though, can be murky and dangerous territory, a tricky commingling of fact, invention, biography, interpretation, romance and reality. Doyle says he was aware of the pitfalls.
“I suppose I’ve had doubts and anxieties with almost everything I’ve ever done, but I didn’t feel any responsibility to a literal or more pedantic truth, or what is perceived as fact,” he says. “But I did feel a broader responsibility in the case of Louis Armstrong, because as I became more interested in him, the plus side of his nature far outweighed any negatives, and it was easy to fall in love with him to an extent. As Henry Smart and I discovered, Louis Armstrong is a man and a musician that you can become very, very fond of.”
Oh, Play That Thing is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £16.99. The best of Louis Armstrong’s 1920s’ recordings is on four-CD box set The Hot Fives and Sevens.
What’s In The Bag? Roddy Doyle’s Last Five CD Purchases
James Brown: Out of Sight, The Very Best Of “I went to see him in concert in June and it was stunning, absolutely brilliant – amazingly, he’s still got it. I was fascinated by the rhythm more than anything else, how the bass comes to the front. James Brown is all rhythm.”
The Beastie Boys: To The Five Boroughs “I’m not a huge fan – it took me a long time to recover from The Right To Party – but I spent four months in New York this year, and they are a group who get more interesting as they get older. Like U2, and unlike the Stones.”
Sonic Youth: Sonic Nurse “I like the unpredictability of their music – you get what you expect, but it’s also full of surprises. I also like the notion that this is their 19th album or something and they’re still calling themselves Sonic Youth (laughs).”
Wilco: A Ghost Is Born “I heard this new album recently and there’s a track on it that lasts 15 minutes – it starts off as a very good but conventional country-ish song and develops into this gentle kind of white noise. It’s absolutely fantastic.”
The Streets: A Grand Don’t Come For Free “Mike Skinner’s a great story-teller and I find his voice hilarious. I wish there was a Dublin person who could do what he does – every city cries out for someone who can tell its story, and make it really accurate and really funny.”