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Book Reviews

Oh, Play That Thing

By Published: April 12, 2006
Oh, Play That Thing
Roddy Doyle
Paperback/audio; 378 pages
ISBN: 0670033618
Viking Press

Renowned Irish novelist Roddy Doyle is best known for his hard-boiled stories of revolution. Of course, that usually means the Irish Republican Army and civil war, but not so in part two of Doyle's Final Roundup trilogy. The revolutionary aspect of this novel is jazz. The 1999 smash A Star Called Henry introduced the ruthless Henry Smart to the world, and he was met with immediate and resounding praise. The sequel, Oh, Play That Thing, follows Henry's escape from Ireland via Ellis Island and into a whole new world of crimes and misdemeanors.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote "Henry is just the man to tell us what we need to understand the history of Ireland." Is it possible the same rambler can also expound the true history of jazz? At times it would seem yes, but Oh, Play That Thing is not without its problems.

First of all, the story is scattered across numerous locations, each with a corresponding heist/occupation. Critics and fans agree that two of Doyle's settings are brilliant: New York City circa 1924 (first half of part one), and Chicago's black neighborhoods several years later (part two). Of course, jazz fans find both locales intriguing; the former for its speakeasies and formative hotbeds of urban jazz, and the latter as the destination of the great jazz migration up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. As we all know, Louis Armstrong's meteoric trail lit all three cities on fire.

Of course, there's no escaping "the Man" on either continent, and the Jim Crow Era being what it was, Armstrong made sure to have "his white man" along to open doors. But he meant that figuratively:

We walked up, side by side. He was a small man—wide but small. To the big front door, and the doorman, white. I guessed what was happening, why I was there, and I held the door for Louis.

—Don't overdo it, Pops, he said when we got into the lift.

There was a black kid at the controls. We could talk in front of him.

—What d'you mean? I said.

—We together, that the tale. I hold the door, you hold the door. I drive, you drive. You not my manservant. I certainly not your boy; nay nay. You with me?

I wasn't, but I would be.

Doyle imagines Henry Smart as the ideal man for the job. He and Pops are clearly cut out for each other. As was written in the Washington Post's Book World, "The two have a lot in common; both are outsiders, ladies' men, perpetually broke and born improvisers." What ensues is unabashed historical fiction fun. The problem is that Doyle straps parts three and four with nearly enough extraneous baggage to bury his earlier genius.

The "New World" was significantly wider than Doyle's native "Emerald Isle." Henry Smart was never overwhelmed, but his creator appeared so at times. Though the first half of Oh, Play That Thing contains some of the most ferocious fiction you've ever read, it steadily degenerates into an outlandish, impossible plot. Irish-American fiction and crime fiction are fairly forgiving genres, but Doyle sadly exceeds even those licenses.

The book jacket itself proclaims a great historical jazz look, thanks to Greg Mollica and hand-lettering by Leanne Shapton, both of whom must have actually read the book. At one point, Henry works as a street-wise ad-man (slash bootlegger). The sandwich-board signs he commissioned are painted in much the same way. The red, white and blue also serves to delineate Oh, Play That Thing from its orange and green Irish prequel.

Henry's first impressions of Chicago are classic:

The neighborhoods were easy. Big chunks of built-up prairie that a man could stay lost in, if he was quick and very quietly flamboyant... I could walk past and through—there was space for a man—without stepping aside or begging pardon. The Irish patches weren't as Irish, the Italians weren't as Mediterranean—there was room for America here. I wasn't stupid or sentimental. There were still plenty of fuckers, hot for murder and profit; but there was room for big elbows here. A man could turn and walk away...

Shortly thereafter, Henry's path leads into a crowded club on State Street. He is changed forever by the music he hears. Man, if the whole book were as electrifying as the next few chapters, Doyle would have himself the Great American novel. In addition to meticulous aspects of jazz culture, Doyle anchors the narrative with factual touches such as the Buster Keaton movie The General and news of the execution of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti (August 23, 1927).

Through the unexpected details of relationships, dialogue, dances, words and songs, Doyle creates a compelling definition of improvisation.

Oh, play that thing. This was living like I'd never seen it. This wasn't drowning the sorrow, the great escape, happy or unhappy. It was life itself, the thing and the point of it. No excuses: it was why these men and women lived.

Oh, Play That Thing is about freedom: Freedom of speech, freedom to conduct business, sexual freedom, freedom from political upheaval, blood vengeance, race and class restrictions. Ride free. With regards to the idealistic passions of an opportunist asshole, Irish and American novels aren't so different. To Henry—even more so than America herself—Mister Armstrong's free-reeling jazz promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Doyle convincingly portrays a revolutionary white man who trades guns and bombs for jazz, all because of a black man's cornet. Henry makes his poignant cultural observations with remarkably few sermons. Now, his dames, on the other hand...

Roddy Doyle is a celebrated author of novels, stage and screen plays, a BBC mini-series, children's books, as well as numerous essays and articles. He was a 1991 Booker Prize Finalist, and the 1993 Booker Prize winner. Oh, Play That Thing certainly isn't his finest work, but it's the one jazz fans will be most interested in. Doyle portrays Louis Armstrong with dignity and humor, in a way you definitely haven't experienced.

Also by Roddy Doyle, the prequel to Oh, Play That Thing:

A Star Called Henry, Paperback, 402 pages, Penguin Group, ISBN: 0143034618

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