three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
By: 
Roddy Doyle
user_rating: 
0

A-OhPlayThatThingHenry Smart, IRA outlaw of Doyle’s bestselling A Star Called Henry (1999), has returned. This time, he’s abandoned his wife, Miss O’Shea (his schoolmarm), in a Dublin jail, skipped over the Atlantic, and is carving a new life for himself in New York in 1924. After a few unsavory escapades with the mob, he heads to Chicago, where he finds jazz, befriends Louis Armstrong, and becomes his unofficial "white" manager. He reunites briefly with his beloved Miss O’Shea and infant daughter, then follows Armstrong to Harlem. During the Depression he rides the rails with Dust Bowl refugees, etc., etc. It’s just a typical life.
Viking. 378 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670033618

Atlanta Journal-Constitution 4 of 5 Stars
"Toward the end, stark realism gives way to ghostly expressionism as Henry stumbles into Monument Valley in Utah, where John Ford (aka Sean Aloysius O’Feeney) and Henry Fonda are shooting their Wyatt Earp saga, My Darling Clementine—an America turning back to look at itself, much as Doyle has done. … Together, the [two books thus far] constitute one of the most remarkable achievements in recent Irish and American literature." Allen Barra

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"Like the first installment, A Star Called Henry, Oh, Play That Thing is Doyle’s stab at a historical novel, a sprawling tale steeped in the grit, lawlessness and hardships of the early 1900s. … The pacing can be peculiar (some days in Henry’s life take pages to reveal; some years are covered in a couple of paragraphs), and you’ve got to have faith in some sort of second-half payoff to trudge through the first 150 pages." Michael Mehle

Chicago Sun-Times 3 of 5 Stars
"And Doyle writes with a voice that rings like a note crying out of a burnished cornet. You’d swear Louis Armstrong himself was telling you the story." Randy Michael Signor

Boston Phoenix 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Although Oh, Play That Thing flows along nicely, it lacks the urgency of its predecessor and at times comes close to unraveling. … Doyle’s characters are too lively—too full-blooded and lusty—to be mere ciphers, and the Booker Prize-winning author gets the feel of things—jazz, regret, memory—right. But he’s got so much ground to cover so fast, some things get lost in the wide open spaces." Clea Simon

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Doyle is fascinated by three American phenomena: gangs, Chicago’s jazz revolution and rail-riding Dust Bowl itinerants. … Still, Doyle is a visitor, if a keen one. There’s nothing wrong with this except that the mythical surges, the comedy swelling into epic, don’t suit the visitor role." Richard Eder

Critical Summary

Booker Prize-winning Doyle (Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha) has taken a few missteps with his latest offering, the second in a projected trilogy. In previous books, Doyle explored the lives of down-and-out immigrants (like those of parents; see Rory & Ita, 2.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2003). Here, he’s attempted a historical epic of early to mid-twentieth century America. Sure, there’s a lot to celebrate: Doyle’s comedic look at Depression-era immigrants’ chaos, hardships, and excitement, his "combo jazzed-up sassy poetry" style (Chicago Sun-Times). Cameos by musicians, actors, and filmmakers add to the fun. But odd pacing, lack of focus, and the extreme extravagance of both characters and plot create an overly chaotic—if wildly fun—romp through Henry’s America.