Friday, June 3, 2011

Revue: Roddy Doyle's Novel "Oh, Play That Thing"

Who actually says it on the recording is not a settled matter, but Jazz people know the expression from a recording of Dipper Mouth Blues:



Strange but true-I came to Oh, Play That Thing through a top-ten-best list of jazz books. It's a "picaresque" novel, a word once used to describe the work of J.P. Dunleavy or Henry Miller. Boiled down, it means there's a lot of screwing-and screwing up-by the main character. Author Roddy Doyle knows what he's doing and the writing is strong, but what particularly interests us here at Brilliant Corners is the relationship between protagonist Henry Strong and Louis Armstrong.

The two meet about halfway through the book, in mid-1920's Chicago. Henry Strong (a name that shows up in a lot of Doyle's writing) is an Irish revolutionary on the lam in the U.S. He's ambitious, handsome, tough and sexually hyper-active.

Strong is introduced to Armstrong by a paramour, Dora, who is passing for white so they can go clubbing on a non-Monday, otherwise the only night that non-whites are allowed in the big clubs. The first thing that Armstrong says when they meet is "That's a mighty fine vine, Pops." Then, half a page later: "An ofay that can carry a coloured suit-We got to talk, Pops."

So, clothes expedite the energy flow between them, but it's Strong's physicality and toughness that Armstrong needs and Strong becomes his gatekeeper--his White Man.

The author has assimilated Louis' writing style and listened carefully to his music and has his voice down pat. He also seems to have Armstrong's psycho-social situation down and expertly shows us Armstrong owning all the power when he's onstage and his relative powerlessness when he's off. Louis knows his own greatness, but understands the labyrinthine game he must play with white owners and management in order to prosper.


Strong is a kind of mirror image of Armstrong. Always at risk of being assassinated by gangsters or gunmen from his revolutionary Irish past, Strong cultivates the capacity to disappear, as Armstrong must cultivate the image of the responsible, obedient negro. At the same time, like Armstrong, Strong wants to be the one who rivets the attention of everyone in the room.

The book adeptly limns a kind of violent ballet between destructive and creative forces. For author Doyle, it's less ballet than high-wire act and, like an ofay that can carry a coloured suit, I think he pulls it off.

4 comments:

Ed Leimbacher said...

Weird coincidence... I found a copy of this novel a week ago, and shoved it into the to-be-read stack wondering what in the hell quintessential Irish novelist Doyle could find to link his character to Louis. So your casually informative review answers some questions but leaves me wondering whether or not to actually read the Buddy thing! Sure an' you're sayin' thumbs up the spout? Or is it then only thumbs down and out?

Steve Provizer said...

Guess I kinda danced around that. Not what a review should do...I say read it. I'd be extremely interested in your take.

Steve Provizer said...

Following up---It's easy to be conflicted about Doyle's portrait of Louis, as it is reading any rendering of a jazz hero in a fictional context. Things happen in a life like Armstrong's, but a novel has to make them happen in a compressed and (unless it's "avant-garde") dramatic way.

If you know something about the guy's life-which we all do about Armstrong-there's always the tension between what we (think) we know, our projections based on that and what we are seeing on the page.

We both cut an author slack because he/she has chosen jazz as a focus-and scrutinize more closely. Hard to avoid some ambivalence in our response.

I Witness said...

Thanks for the further info. As is typical, I got carried away in the writing and acted more confused than was merited. You did come down on the side of recommending, and you also wrote the review the way other folks including me would: "It's a little of this and a little of that; this works, and that doesn't, but over all it's probably worth your time." So much easier when one merely LOVES or HATES something, and so speaks directly... Your added musings are a plus.