Book Review Oh, Play That Thing Roddy Doyle (Viking)
Long before the average cost of a hole in the wall hit $1 million, New York City was America's urban O.K. Corral. In the '20s and '30s gin runners shot and stabbed each other for territory and heavies manned the doors to speakeasies. In other words, it was the kind of place where Henry Smart would feel right at home.
When last we saw Smart, 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-like so many Irish at that time-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 a little familiar. Henry Roth and EL Doctorow have already written extraordinary novels about life on the Lower East Side. Oh, Play That Thing feels like a research project by comparison. Smart tries to squeeze 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 some of its heft. Henry discovers the 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. As a result, the two fall into a friendship that would make Cornell West proud.
Like Albert Murray, who conjured Duke Ellington in his novel, The Seven League Boots, Doyle is never star-struck by his character's celebrity. His Armstrong is twinkle-eyed and wicked, hugely talented, and a lover of women. Also like Murray, Doyle gets how 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, too. Henry can never stop running, or re-inventing himself, because people from his past are still trying to kill him. When Doyle has 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.