A STAR CALLED HENRY by Roddy Doyle Viking 342 pp., $24.95
I learned about the IRA in 1982 during lunch at the Hard Rock Caf in central London. During my hamburger, a bomb blew up a crowded bandstand and killed six musicians in Regent's Park. Sound of the distant explosion startled us, but we laughed it off and went on with our meal.
A classmate of mine, though, was listening to the band that hot summer day. Shattered by her vision of the carnage, she quit school and flew back home.
Probably everybody in England and Northern Ireland has a story about the day the Troubles hit home. For thousands of people whose lives have been scarred by the conflict, it's impossible to fathom the terrorists responsible for these atrocities.
With "A Star Called Henry," Roddy Doyle has imagined the unfathomable. His vain young hero, Henry Smart, is a maddeningly likable killer who realizes only too late what horror he's perpetuating.
If Henry is right and "stories are the only thing the poor own," then he's a rich man indeed. The son of a hopeful girl and a one-legged thug, Henry starts his story with the miracle of his healthy birth in the slums of Dublin in 1901. He's the only flame among Angela's ashes, so to speak. Women and men stand in long lines to get a look at "the Glowing Baby."
With the outlandish pride that marks his entire story, Henry says, "They looked at me and saw a fine lad who was going to live. The women had never seen one before." Even as a toddler raging along the squalid streets by himself, Henry is impressed by his good looks and his power to seduce.
As his mother falls into madness and his father rises from bouncer to murderer, little Henry runs away with his nine-month-old brother in search of a better life.
After three hair-raising years on the streets, they find a moment of happiness in the classroom of Miss O'Shea. A cruel nun turns him back onto the streets, but not before Henry captures his teacher's heart.
Even as everyone wastes away around him, he never doubts his legendary potential. Five years later, at the ripe age of 14, Henry finally stumbles into history and again into the arms of Miss O'Shea.
The novel's spectacular second section opens at the Easter Rising in 1916. "I held my left arm across my eyes," he begins, "and smashed the window.... Henry Smart, stark and magnificent in the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army was ready for war. I was walking dynamite." From this point on, the novel reads like a burning fuse.
He and "a sorry looking gang" of revolutionaries hole up in Dublin's General Post Office and wait for government forces to decimate the building, kill scores of them, and take the rest into custody.
Out of this futile battle, told with spectacular flourish, a hundred legends are born, including the ballad of Henry Smart: loyal patriot, ferocious warrior, and insatiable lover.
Teamed with Miss O'Shea and armed with his father's old wooden leg, Henry carries out a series of brutal assassinations for the IRA. He and his peers have no hope of beating their adversaries; instead, they commit atrocities to inspire greater atrocities from the British.
His dogged loyalty to the cause - no matter how naively defined - makes him a valuable cog in the battle, but in the end only a cog. He's eventually marked for death by the same system of terror he's served so effectively.
Though he joined full of fury at the British and hope for the downtrodden, Henry survives to see his cause twisted by petty greed, corruption, and brutality. This painful awakening from moral idiocy is Henry's real claim to heroism and the novel's most profound mystery.
Doyle's rich narrative style, familiar to fans of his Booker Prize-winning "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" (1993), captures the sweep of a country breaking into civil war and the little moments of individual despair it causes. The first part of a projected trilogy on Ireland in the 20th century, "A Star Called Henry" revels in the sort of moral ambiguity this tragic subject demands.
If only today's real-life participants in the "Irish question" would demonstrate as much understanding as Doyle, this trilogy could end in peace.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to email@example.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society