DUBLIN is the one city where people know Roddy Doyle when they see him. It’s the only place he has ever lived, and up until his new novel Oh, Play That Thing!, it was the only place he ever set his stories. Today, he tells a true one from a few weeks ago. Doyle was waiting for a friend at Tara Street train station, and a gang of little hoods were hanging around nearby. In Glasgow they would be neds, in Dublin they’re called gurriers. One of them broke off and came over to stare at him.
“Are you Roddy Doyle?” he asked. “Yeah,” said Doyle. “So what?” said the kid, and walked away again. Doyle had to laugh. He’s a serious man, and like most novelists he would much rather be recognised by his work than his face. But quick remarks like that keep him comfortable with fame in his hometown, where his books, particularly the Barrytown Trilogy – The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van – have become as much the spiritual property of the city as anything by James Joyce or Sean O’Casey. The local dialogue reminds Doyle why he never left, and reassures him that he was right. Unlike Joyce or O’Casey, who both legged it to Europe.
“That’s what I miss whenever I go away,” he says, sitting in his publicist’s office in the city centre. “That chance you will hear someone say something fantastic.” Many fantastic things are said in Oh, Play That Thing!, Doyle’s sequel to his vigorous historical novel A Star Called Henry. But they’re not said in Dublin. The title itself is shouted out midway through the book – and midway through the 1920s – by the blazing young jazz genius Louis Armstrong, between blows on his trumpet in a steamed-up Chicago nightclub. For the first time, one of Doyle’s stories has taken him far from the streets he knows. To prepare, he read enough books about the time and place to put a long bibliography at the back of the novel. And he walked around New York and Chicago to get the feel. “Images you weren’t aware of,” he says, “like the brightness of the New York air, for example, can reveal little avenues that lead to parts of the story.”
In Chicago, he found that the old jazz haunts on State Street had been almost entirely erased. The Vendrome Cinema is now a car park; The Sunset Cafe is a hardware store. “If I was a citizen of Chicago I would be outraged,” says Doyle. “It seems so brutal just to knock that history down. But as a writer I found it liberating, because I was free to invent.” It’s taken him five years to finish Oh, Play That Thing! He’s written three children’s books in that time, “sporadically, reading bits to my kids in the evening”. They’re hilarious, haphazard stories based around the Mack family and their capable dog Rover, who makes contingency plans for everything, including jailbreaks and meteors. The latest, titled The Meanwhile Adventures, will also be published this month, which he says “might give you the false impression that I’m sort of a machine, churning these out”.
Doyle doesn’t seem mechanical, exactly, but he’s businesslike. He regulates his imagination. You can understand why he’d want to test the funny parts out on the kids. And what really makes them laugh is the little voice that intrudes on the pages to declare the story “Boring”, forcing the narrator to come up with something better, like a big explosion in the kitchen. “That’s the voice of my own little editor,” he says. “Always wanting action, action, action.”
He uses it, in some way, for all his work: Doyle thinks editing is as important as writing itself. “The ability to express something is as much about withdrawing words as adding them.” The only trouble with his grown-up book about America, jazz, and the Roaring Twenties, was knowing where to start and when to stop. “The sheer scale of the endeavour, the volume of research … at times you wish you’d never started at all.”
In the end, Oh, Play That Thing! captures its subjects in methodically crazy prose, a finger-snappin’, hellzapoppin’ style that projects the energy of the age, “this amazing time of great invention”, and the chaos of the music.
“I wanted the structure to reflect the unpredictable nature of jazz. I wanted the reader to think: ‘Where did that come from?’ The difficulty was making sure the writing would have that broken quality, but also be clear.”
And the clarity comes in the voice of the narrator. At the centre of all the noise is Doyle’s hero Henry Smart, who shouts his own name into the sky from Dublin to the American dustbowl. This book is the second part of his legend. While Doyle’s characters have always been shouters, the writer himself is pretty quiet. He grew up in the rowdy working-class suburb of Kilbarrack – not far from Killester, where he lives now – and spent 14 years teaching English and geography to yappy kids at the local community school.
He was obviously listening closely. When he wrote his first novel, The Commitments, in 1987, its fictional conversations came out sounding real and loud enough to drown out any authorial voice. Doyle sat back and “let the characters do their own roaring”, and the soul band of the title argued at full volume between songs. It read like a great script in its currents of rhythmic, dirty dialogue, and Alan Parker’s hit movie adaptation made Doyle famous and financially stable.
The subsequent Barrytown books (also made into films) presented a vision of northside Dublin that was virtually identical to the real place, where people make fine use of rough language. Every novel he’s written since has concerned Irish protagonists living through hard times. But Doyle shakes off any suggestion of a duty to his “people”.
“The only responsibility I consistently feel, and I’m not being flippant, is to myself. To write it as well as I possibly can. Is it true? Is it convincing? Is it just plain good? And when it comes to working class life, it’s a question of whether I feel I captured it properly, not what anyone else thinks of it. I’m reasonably happy with everything I’ve done.”
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which won the Booker Prize in 1993, was narrated by the eponymous boy himself, telling you about schoolday horseplay and his parents’ break-up in his own entirely believable pre-adolescent speech pattern. And Paula Spencer, narrator of The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, seemed to be suppressing a scream throughout her survivor’s account of a violent marriage. Or maybe she was releasing it. “With Paula,” explains Doyle, “every word was actually a shout. ‘Here I am, I’m alive’. She’s trying to get down to the core of her existence and tell the exact truth.”
Doyle says he had always been a “slave to reality”, and writing The Woman Who Walked Into Doors demanded particularly scrupulous guesswork as to what such a woman might actually say and do in her circumstances. “I think it gave me a sense of a job well done, but I don’t recall enjoying it.”
So with his next narrator, he decided “not to give a toss”. And in 1999, Doyle introduced Henry Smart in A Star Called Henry, the first volume of a planned three-book sequence titled The Last Roundup. Born into the devouring, subterranean misery of Dublin’s underclass at the turn of the last century, Henry grew up to join the doomed Easter Rising against British rule in 1916 – not because he was a Republican romantic, but because he was poor and furious – and became the number one troublemaker under IRA leader Michael Collins.
At the end of that book, Henry was running away to find his own place in a world that Doyle created out of documented history and vaulting make-believe. And at the start of the follow-up, Henry gets off the boat in Prohibition-era New York.
“Henry is shouting too,” says Doyle, “but as a narrator he wants something more than the truth. So I give him more elbow room than there is in the real world, more room for things that couldn’t really happen. And for the most part, it’s fun to write.” Fun to read, too. At one point in Oh, Play That Thing!, Henry and his gifted, troubled new employer Louis Armstrong hide from Al Capone’s henchmen in the Chicago sewers, Armstrong playing Basin Street Blues beneath the city on a bullet-dented trumpet. Doyle had read enough about Louis to feel sure that he liked the man, and that putting him in unreal situations wouldn’t be “anything less than enjoyable”.
“As to the morality of using historical figures as fictional characters,” says Doyle, “I think absolutely, yeah, do it. There should be no rules. The only test should be, ‘Is it any good?'” Henry himself is a product of his environment – he comes to America as a penniless Irish immigrant, like millions of others. But he’s also indomitable, more epic than average.
“I suppose there’s a part of Henry that every man would like to be,” says Doyle, and he’s including himself. “His courage, his physical strength, his success with women, that supernatural command in his eyes. There’s an element of you that wishes you were like that, and writing allows you to get closer to realising it.”
If the Last Roundup trilogy is Doyle’s idea of a myth, then it contains none of the nostalgia or quasi-political romance that Ireland has traditionally used to sentimentalise its own history. “Sentimentality is a huge fear of mine. In a world which seems increasingly harsh, realities are presented in a more and more sentimental way, and it’s often utterly dishonest. As a storyteller it becomes another question of editing. One more adjective is sentimental, take out that adjective and it’s bang on.” If Doyle has become a living figure in Ireland’s literary tradition, which itself has become an active part of the modern tourist industry, then he’ll accept it because he has no choice.
“It’s annoying sometimes, because it’s all about commodification, and I don’t feel like a commodity. There’s a big picture of me head in Eason’s [bookshop] and that embarrasses me. But the benefits of being well-known are, for example, creative independence.” To the reflexive outrage of the literary world, he recently expressed frustration with the inescapable shadow of James Joyce, a writer who Doyle feels “needed a good editor”, and to whom he owes nothing.
“If you’re writing about Dublin in any shape or form, the Joyce comparisons are always there. Some critic will always say he’s on your shoulder. But the only alternative is not to write at all.”
The latter isn’t an option for Doyle. His next book will be set in contemporary Dublin, and acknowledge the speed of the city’s recent transformation from a “peripheral, miserable failure” to a robust European capital. “Put it this way,” he says. “In 1990 I wrote about an unemployed plasterer. There’s no such thing as an unemployed plasterer in Dublin now. There are tradesmen making enough money to buy second homes.” Some say affluence has changed the character of the place, but Doyle, who listens more closely than most, hasn’t noticed any decline in the quality of overheard remarks.
“What sort of a prick would I be, making a good living myself, to say that we’re all being ruined by prosperity? It’s fantastic, and very entertaining, to hear ordinary people talking about buying apartments in Bulgaria. Good luck to them. I’m on the verge of getting sentimental about it.”