Oh, Play That Thing: A Novel

Oh, Play That Thing: A Novel

by Roddy Doyle

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The sequel to Roddy Doyle’s beloved novel A Star Called Henry – an entertaining romp across America in the 1920s

Watch for Roddy Doyle’s new novel, Smile, coming in October of 2017

Fleeing the Irish Republican paymasters for whom he committed murder and mayhem, Henry Smart has left his wife and infant daughter in Dublin and is off to start a new life. When he lands in America, it is 1924 and New York City is the center of the universe. Henry turns to hawking cheap hooch on the Lower East Side, only to catch the attention of the mobsters who run the district. In Chicago, Henry finds a newer America alive with wild, happy music played by a man with a trumpet and bleeding lips called Louis Armstrong. But in a city also owned by the mob, Armstrong is a prisoner of his color. He needs a man--a white man--and the man he chooses is Henry Smart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440622670
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/25/2005
Series: The Last Roundup , #2
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 910,569
File size: 405 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

I could bury myself in New York. I could see that from the boat as it went under the Statue of Liberty on a cold dawn that grew quickly behind me and shoved the fog off the slate-coloured water. That was Manhattan, already towering over me. It made tiny things of the people around me, all gawking at the manmade cliffs, and the ranks of even higher cliffs behind them, stretching forever into America and stopping their entry. I could see the terror in their eyes.

I could stare into the eyes without fear of recognition. They weren’t Irish faces and it wasn’t Irish muck on the hems of their greatcoats. Those coats had been dragged across Europe. They were families, three and four generations of them; the Irish travelled alone. There were the ancient women, their faces collapsed and vicious, clutching bags they’d carried across the continent, full of string and eggshells and stones from the walls of lost houses. And their husbands behind them, hidden by beards, their eyes still young and fighting. They guarded the cases and boxes at their feet. And their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, under embroidered scarves and black caps, and younger children still, and pregnant girls with scrawny boys standing and sitting beside them, all cowed by the approaching city cliffs. Even the youngest sensed that their excitement was unwanted and stayed silent, as the Reliance sent small waves against Bedloe’s Island and the big stone American woman – send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me – as their parents and grandparents shivered at the new world and tried to know if they were looking at its front or back. I was the only man alone, the only man not afraid of what was growing up in front of us. This was where a man could disappear, could die if he wanted to, and come back to quick, big life.

I had arrived.

But we turned from Manhattan and sailed, almost back into the night, towards the New Jersey shore. And the silence around me fell deeper as the island crept up in front of us. The last few square feet of the old, cruel world, the same name in all the languages on board as we were pulled closer and closer, isola delle lagrime, Tränen Insel, the isle of tears. Ellis Island.

Hundreds of shuffling feet trapped under the vaulted ceiling of the great hall, the air was full of the whispers of the millions who’d passed through, the cries of the thousands who’d been stopped and sent back. I listened for the tap of a famous leg, but I heard none. Old men tried to straighten long-crooked backs and mothers rubbed rough colour into the white cheeks of their children. Wild men ran fingers through long beards and regretted that they hadn’t shaved before they’d disembarked. Jewish women caressed sons’ ringlets and tried to push them under hats. Fragments of new language were tried, and passed from mouth to mouth.

—Yes, sir.

—No, sir.

—My cousin, he have a house.

—I am a farmer.


The medical inspector stared into my eyes. I knew what he was looking for. I’d been told all about it, by a lame and wheezy anarchist who was making his seventh try at landing.

—They see the limp but never the brain, he’d said. —The fools. When they confront the fact that I am too dangerous for their country, then I will happily turn my back on it. But, until then, I commute between Southampton and their Ellis Island.

—If you could afford first or second class, I told him, —you wouldn’t have to set foot on the island.

—You think I am not aware of this? he said. —I can afford it. But I won’t afford it.

The inspector was looking for signs of trachoma in my eyes, and for madness behind them. He couldn’t stare for long – no one could; he saw nothing that was going to send me back. To my left, another inspector drew a large L on a shoulder with a brand new piece of chalk. L was for lung. I knew the signs; I’d been seeing them all my life. The man with the brand new L had already given up. He collapsed and coughed out most of his remaining life. He had to be carried away. An E on the shoulder meant bad eyes, another L meant lameness. And behind those letters, other hidden letters, never chalked onto shoulders: J for too Jewish, C for Chinese, SE, too far south and east of Budapest. H was for heart, SC was for scalp, X was for mental.

And H was for handsome.

The guards stood back and I walked the few steps to the next desk. I let my heels clip the Spanish tiles. Two beautiful sisters held each other as they were pushed back. Without parents or children they were too likely to fall into bad hands waiting for them on the Manhattan or New Jersey wharfs. If they were lucky they’d be kept on the island until relatives were found to take them; less lucky, they’d be pawed, then let through; less lucky still, they’d be deported, sent back before they’d arrived.

I handed my passport and papers to the Immigration Bureau officer. He opened the passport and found the ten-dollar note I’d left in its centre. The note was gone before I saw it missing. I’d taken it from the wheezy anarchist; its loss didn’t sting. Then came the catechism, the questions I couldn’t get wrong.

—What is your name?

—Henry Drake.

—Where are you from?


—Why have you come to the United States?


So far, so easy.

But he stopped. He looked at me.

—Where are you travelling from, sir? he asked me.

It wasn’t one of the questions.

—London, I said.

He seemed to be staring at the word as I spoke it.

—You are a born Englishman, sir?

He read my latest name.

—Mister Drake?


—Henry Drake.


—And where is Missis Drake, sir?

—She’s in my dreams.

—So you’re travelling alone, sir, is that right? You are an unmarried man.

—That’s right.

—And how do you intend supporting yourself, sir?

We were back on track.

—By working very hard.

—Yes, and how, sir?

—I’m a salesman.

—And your speciality?

I shrugged.

—Everything, and anything.

—Alright. And do you have sufficient funds to sustain you until you commence selling everything?

—I do.

He handed me a sheet of paper.

—Could you read this for me, sir?

—We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union—

And as I strolled through the literacy test, I could feel Victor, my brother, beside me, his leg pressed against mine in the school desk, and Miss O’Shea at my shoulder, my teacher and wife, the mother of the daughter I suddenly missed, her wet fingers on my cheek.

—and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of—

He took the paper from my fingers. He picked up a rubber stamp and brought it down on top of a card. I read the stamp: ADMITTED.

—Welcome to America, he said.

Table of Contents

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The action is fast, the language authentic and earthy... Henry Smart may not be admirable, but he is unforgettable." —The Boston Globe

"The terse, slang-studded rhythms of Doyle’s prose have a striking musicality... A remarkable performance in language. —Chicago Tribune

"Doyle is arguably the finest fiction writer to emerge from Ireland since World War II." —The Denver Post

"Together, [A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing] constitute one of the most remarkable achievements in recent irish and American literature." —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Reading Group Guide

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.


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.


  • There 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?
  • Foreword

    1. Roddy Doyle says he avoids lengthy descriptions in his books and tries to let the characters speak for themselves. “I’ve always liked brilliant dialogue, in Elmore Leonard, in Flannery O’Connor, anywhere where you can tell as soon as the characters open their mouths where they’re from... I just wanted to record the sound of the talk.” Discuss the voices in Oh, Play That Thing and how well Doyle reveals the interior language of his protagonist.

    2. “I love Peter Carey’s book Illywhacker and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum,” says Roddy Doyle. “These are books that left a very lasting impression on me. And indeed Midnight’s Children and Shame, the Salman Rushdie novels, made a very lasting impression on me. And they may have been at the back of my mind when I was starting this book.” Some people have said Roddy Doyle was telling the history of twentieth-century Ireland in A Star Called Henry, as William Boyd told a story of the twentieth century in Any Human Heart. Discuss the interplay of real history and individual character in Oh, Play That Thing.

    3. In A Star Called Henry, Henry Smart is larger than life, and Doyle steps away from the realism of his previous books to experiment with plot. “I wanted impossible things to mix with possible, real and fictional people to shake hands . . . I wanted to have fun. I wanted to go over the top.” While it is not as overtly experimental, would you describe Oh, Play That Thing as over the top, and if so, why and what does this effect achieve?

    4. Roddy Doyle has in the pastreceived criticism in Ireland for his raw portrayal of working-class northside Dublin, for giving the country a bad image; especially with a brutally frank film about domestic abuse called The Family, which was watched by half the adult population in Ireland nevertheless. Bearing in mind that one of Doyle’s favourite authors is Elmore Leonard, discuss sex and violence in Oh, Play That Thing.

    5. As a child, Roddy Doyle has said he was never a fighter but survived by using humour to save himself. “I used to compose silly songs about people, give them nicknames, things like that.” Discuss his use of language and the sense of humour in this book.

    Customer Reviews

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    Oh, Play That Thing 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I read 'Oh, Play That Thing' because I'm a fan of Roddy Doyle and had thoroughly enjoyed 'A Star Called Henry'. The novel plodded along as Henry raced from NY to PA. I had a hard time maintaining my interest but I continued reading. Although I suffered through every little detail of Henry's young life, the last chapter speeded through his later years. The last chapter was absolutely ridiculous and I felt the author, on some kind of a deadline to finish his novel, wrapped up the story in a matter of minutes with unbelievable scenarios. That's a few hours of my time I'll never get back.
    tgamble54 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I was a little disappointed in this book. I thought the ending wasn't very satisfying - almost as if Doyle couldn't finish the story in a meaningful way. Not up to the standards of his previous novels.
    ShelfMonkey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better, sings Fat Olaf¿s half-sister throughout the pages of Oh, Play That Thing. And so, presumably, does author Roddy Doyle.The Irish author has indeed gotten better with each novel he writes. Deservedly earning 1993¿s Booker Award for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Doyle has warranted acclaim for his unique take on modern-day Ireland, delivering captivating characters and quietly astonishing tragedies while capturing the urban patois of Irish speech.What a shock, then, when Doyle released A Star Called Henry in 1999, unveiling a hitherto unseen tool in his arsenal: ferocity. A historical novel of Ireland¿s violent past, Star was brash, lyrical, and often visionary, an abrupt turnabout from Doyle¿s standard offbeat fare.Now, in Oh, Play That Thing, Star¿s tremendous follow-up, Doyle takes his riskiest step yet; he leaves Ireland altogether for 1920s America. The risk pays off handsomely. Doyle appears to be incapable of writing a bad novel. Henry Smart, Doyle¿s wily protagonist, has just immigrated to Manhattan, a city that ¿made tiny things of the people around me, all gawking at the manmade cliffs, and the ranks of even higher cliffs behind them . . . I could see the terror in their eyes.¿ It is already an America of slick admen and crass opportunism, and Henry will not be left out.A natural charmer, Henry throws himself into the new world with gusto. But when his usual practice of skimming off the top draws attention to his past, he flees to Chicago, where he sees a man playing the trumpet so viciously ¿[h]is lips were bleeding ¿ I saw drops fall like notes to his patent leather shoes ¿ but he was the happiest man on earth.¿ The man is Louis Armstrong, and Henry¿s life is taking an unexpected detour.Coming from the author of The Commitments, a novel that disparagingly regarded jazz as ¿sound for the sake of sound,¿ it may surprise readers how passionately Doyle evokes Armstrong¿s music. What is not surprising is how fluently Doyle weaves musical tempos and lyrics into the rhythm of the story, crafting entire scenes around songs that lend both ambience and potency to Henry¿s life.As usual, Doyle maintains his mastery of distinctive yet realistic dialogue, a rapid-fire staccato similar to the works of American authors James Ellroy or David Mamet. But the real pleasure is witnessing Doyle¿s continual evolution as a stylist, expanding his stories beyond the fabulous dialogue of his earlier novels with gritty atmosphere and astonishing physicality.Henry Smart is a spectacular character; ceaselessly moving and thinking, luckier than he is smart, callous yet eminently likeable. As he moves from the embedded violence of Ireland to the ingrained racism of America, Henry begins to recognize more than simply his own desires. The growth Doyle allows Henry is remarkable, matched perfectly with Doyle¿s perpetual inventiveness.Oh, Play That Thing is a coup of imagination and verve, the equal to A Star Called Henry, and a triumph on its own. When Henry¿s story eventually continues, Doyle will have his work cut out for him.
    librarist on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Henry Smart is as full of himself as ever, only now he's made his way to America, and seems to be grabbing everything it has to offer with both hands.
    SqueakyChu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I¿m thinking that whoever reads this book would have to be familiar with Roddy Doyle¿s writing and decide it¿s up his alley before starting this book. Oh Play That Thing is the second book of a trilogy by this Irish author whose first book of this series was A Star Called Henry, the story of young poverty-stricken Henry Smart who takes up the cause of the Irish Republican Army in Dublin, Ireland. In Oh Play That Thing, Henry Smart has come to America to avoid being killed by those who are hunting for him in Ireland. He leaves behind a wife and child and starts life anew first in New York and again later in Chicago. This is a fast-paced book with short, sharp, and witty dialogue, often not entirely clear when spoken but later understood in context. Among my favorite characters in the book are Olaf¿s half sister (who remains without a name in the first half of the book) and Louis Armstrong. Yes, it¿s the same musician that we all know from the history of jazz and black America. This book is long and rollicking. Henry Smart assumes multiple names and remains on the run for the whole book. Being that the United States is about the enter the Depression, Henry Smart never seems to make it above poverty level despite his work as a sandwich board man and Louis Armstrong¿s ¿white boy¿. This is probably a book I¿d never have read had I just had the hard copy. I was fortunate to have borrowed the CD narrated by Christian Conn from my library. This narrator not only brought this book to life, but almost had the characters jumping out of my CD player. His was an amazing performance. I guess reading this book would have been fun as well, but I hardly think the experience would have been comparable.
    Doondeck on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This follow-up to "A Star Called Henry" was a major disappointment. One of the very few books that I have ever given up on after 50 pages.
    jimrbrown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Very disappointing after his previous excellent novels. I found it hard to follow at times and was bored at times.
    orangewords on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I adore Roddy Doyle. He is, far and away, one of my favourite authors. Keep that in mind when I say that I *hated* this book. Really hated it. Fifty pages in, I was fighting an uphill battle to finish it, which is really astounding, considering that Doyle's prose usually flies off of the page at the reader with a speed that is both easy and remarkable. Henry Smart in Ireland is fast, witty, and amusing. Henry Smart in America, however, is a slow-thinking, grating hodgepodge of repetitive slang.This is a book I wish I never read. "A Star Called Henry" was a remarkable novel, and one that should not be sullied by the travesty that is "Oh, Play That Thing". While I understand the ambition behind this work, and I do see wonderful aspects of the author's style throughout the narrative, any positive features of "Oh, Play That Thing" are overshadowed by the feelings of boredom and frustration that this novel evoked in me. Roddy Doyle, what were you thinking?
    workingwriter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Disappointing followup to "A Star Called Henry," but not at all bad.
    DuffDaddy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Man! That was a mouthful!! This is a sprawling novel that might have been better shorter, or made into two seperate books. There was much to absorb between Henry's New York, Chicago and western US adventures. I chaffed a little at the unlikely partnership between Henry and Louis Armstrong, but kept at it. At times it had the flavor of Joyce's Ulysses. It was an effort of will to perservere through some points in the novel, but it was worth it. Not as good as the first installment and now I'm on the hook for the third! :^) Henry Smart is on the run. Fleeing from his Irish Republican Army paymasters, the men for whom he committed murder and mayhem, he has left behind his wife, Miss O¿Shea, in a Dublin jail, and his infant daughter. When he lands in America, it's 1924, and New York is the center of the universe. Henry, ever resourceful, a pearl gray fedora parked on his head, has a sandwich board and a hidden stash of hooch for the speakeasies of the Lower East Side. When he starts hiring kids to carry boards for him, he catches the attention of the mobsters who run the district. It is time to leave, for another, newer America. In Chicago there is no past waiting to jump on Henry. Music is everywhere, in the streets, in nightclubs, on phonograph records: furious, wild, happy music played by a man with a trumpet and bleeding lips called Louis Armstrong. But Armstrong is a prisoner of his color, and the mob is in Chicago too: they own every stage¿and they own the man up on the stage. Armstrong needs a man, a white man, and the man he chooses is Henry Smart.
    sonrich More than 1 year ago