Questions and Topics for Discussion
With his sequel to A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle continues the story of the infamous yet irresistible Henry Smart. An extraordinary man to be sure, Henry is also every man who ever hoped for a different kind of life and a better future.
When Oh, Play That Thing opens it is 1924, and Henry is sailing into New York Harbor. His job in Dublin now finished, this is Henry’s chance for a fresh start, to leave his murderous past behind and begin life anew: “America was everything possible,” he says.
Indeed, things for Henry do start out with promise. His many “talents” combined with his unsurpassed survival instinct make finding work easy—the hard part is staying out of trouble. Despite his desire for a fresh start, Henry is unable to keep the dark side of the world at bay and soon realizes that leaving Dublin was not the end of his running but the beginning, as he enters a race against time for his own survival.
Henry moves from place to place, making one narrow escape after another, always landing on his feet and reinventing himself each time. In Chicago, he befriends the great Louis Armstrong, on the cusp of stardom, and becomes Armstrong’s “white man.” When the “hard guys” are on his heels again, he returns to New York—Harlem this time—still at Armstrong’s side. But the ghosts of Henry’s past just won’t let go, and before long he’s on the run again, crisscrossing America in pursuit of his life, his liberty, and his elusive wife, Miss O’Shea.
Telling Henry’s epic story in his distinctive, captivating writing style, Roddy Doyle takes us breathlessly and effortlessly between two worlds, the Dublin of Henry’s past and the cities and towns of America—very different places yet ironically very much the same. As Henry discovers, you can leave a place, but your past comes along with you.
ABOUT RODDY DOYLE
Roddy Doyle is an internationally bestselling writer. His first three novels—The Commitments, The Snapper, and the 1991 Booker Prize finalist The Van—are known as The Barrytown Trilogy. He is also the author of the novels Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993 Booker Prize winner), The Woman Who Walked into Doors, and A Star Called Henry, and a non-fiction book about his parents, Rory & Ita. Doyle has also written for the stage and the screen: the plays Brownbread, War, Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner, and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors; the film adaptations of The Commitments )as co-writer), The Snapper, and The Van; When Brendan Met Trudy (an original screenplay); the four-part television series Family for the BBC; and the television play Hell for Leather. Roddy Doyle has also written the children’s books The Giggler Treatment, Rover Saves Christmas, and The Meanwhile Adventures and contributed to a variety of publications including The New Yorker magazine and several anthologies. He lives in Dublin.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSThere is so much powerful and recurring symbolism throughout the novel: water, (“It was old water under there and I didn’t want to find it,” p. 55); and time, (“Time was money. Time was life. It was up to me,” p. 26) are just two examples of many. What are examples of symbolism in the book and how do they contribute toward deepening the meaning in the novel and your experience of it? If you have also read A Star Called Henry, discuss the symbolism that is carried through into Oh, Play That Thing. (Henry’s father has a wooden leg in Star; Henry loses his leg in Play, for example.)
The idea of a name is extremely important throughout the novel; Henry tells the inspector at Ellis Island that his name is Henry Drake, then he calls himself Henry Glick; he doesn’t know Miss O’Shea’s first name (and doesn’t want to know it). How are names used in the novel, and how does the change or absence of a name affect a character? Think about the meaning of names in your own life. How did you get your name? If you have children, how did you choose their names?
Henry reinvents himself many times throughout the novel but always ends up Henry Smart. Do you think it’s really possible to reinvent yourself? Have you ever tried it in your own life, or can you think of anyone, famous or otherwise, who has done so successfully? They say Ellis Island is a place where lives were reinvented, in keeping with the idea that in America you could become anyone or be anything. Has this been your own experience? Your family’s experience?
Henry is indeed a smart guy, but he certainly makes some bad decisions. Talk about some of these decisions and why you think Henry makes them. Do some of these decisions affect your opinion of Henry? Do you sympathize with him and find yourself rooting for him throughout the novel, despite some not-so-likable behavior? If so, why? If not, why not? What is Henry’s opinion of himself? When speaking of Fast Olaf’s half-sister’s powerful effect on people Henry wonders if “some of that magic didn’t come from me, from rubbing up to me” (p. 110). Is he merely self-confident or delusional?
Talk about the women in the novel. What roles do they play in Henry’s life?
Fast Olaf’s half sister uses the psychological technique of “autosuggestion” as a very powerful tool: “Every day, in ev-ery way—I am getting better and better and better.” Talk about the meaning of this phrase in Henry’s life. “Say the words often enough, and you’ll start to believe them,” she says to Henry (p. 41). Does Henry take her advice? She’s a bit of a charlatan, yet people seem magnetically drawn to her. Such figures have abounded both in American literature and pop culture. Think of some examples and their impact on American society.
Henry encounters quite a few historical figures, both in Oh, Play That Thing and A Star Called Henry. How do you as a reader react when you encounter a real person in a work of fiction? What do you think the author is trying to achieve by doing this?
Why do you think Louis Armstrong connects with Henry? Doesn’t Henry put Armstrong at great risk when he coaxes him into his first burglary? Is Henry good or bad for Armstrong?
Were you surprised to discover at the end of the novel that the whole of World War II has gone by, unnoticed by Henry? “I didn’t know there was a war,” he says on p. 367. What does this suggest about Henry? Does it suggest anything about what Roddy Doyle might be trying to say?
Roddy Doyle is planning on this being the second book in a trilogy. What do you think will happen next in Henry’s life adventure? What do you think should happen to make Henry’s life complete and why?