"A Star Called Henry," by Roddy Doyle. Viking. 344 pages. $23.95.
Some books sweep you into the embrace of their arms and do not let you go. Roddy Doyle's sixth novel, "A Star Called Henry," is of that breed -- compelling, original, devastating, funny, a masterwork, an instant classic. It's as if Doyle has reinvented language and the way a story gets told. As if the author himself had been born into nothing in Dublin at the turn of the century and is telling all, for our ears only, with a manic generosity.
But this is fiction, and Doyle's spirited inventiveness should not, by now, surprise.
His earlier work? "The Van," "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" and "The Woman Who Walked into Doors" among them -- announced his genius and "A Star Called Henry" merely offers more proof that all is well inside this feverish yarnspinner's head.
As the first volume of a planned trilogy titled, "The Last Roundup," "A Star Called Henry" gives us a protagonist whom we will not soon forget -- a child so ablaze with life that he remembers the details of his own fine birth with a cocky breathlessness.
"I was a broth of an infant, the wonder of Summerhill and beyond," he relates. "I was the big news, a local legend within hours of landing on the newspapers." Henry Smart remembers the sound of his murderous father's wooden leg in the street, the smell of his weepy mother's milk, the meals left behind by visiting families, even the thoughts that went on in adults' heads. Henry is greedy, a survivor, his narration so preposterously filled with things that he could not have known that instinctively we trust him.
The reader runs behind the story, trying to keep up with language at once economical and effusive. Doyle has no time to set up scenes, and while his audience should be confused, it never is. Still but a child, Henry takes his brother Victor out on the streets, sharing everything he has and is. "We made a living," he tells us. "We robbed and helped, invented and begged. We were small, so hard to grab. We were pathetic -- our mournful, crusted eyes hauled farthings and ha'pennies from purses and pockets. We were little princes of the streets, little packs of enterprise and cunning. We were often cold, always hungry but we kept on going going going."
Soon enough, Victor is dead and Henry's parents have gone missing and Henry is fighting for his life alongside the young republican army. It's a cause he'll never fully understand, and yet he gives it his every waking breath, swinging his Daddy's wooden leg about him when all else is desperately failing.
Henry is full of bravado and also innocent. His self-importance is a charm. He sleeps with all of Ireland's women but only falls in love with one, and all throughout the book, he is haunted by an impenetrable family mystery.
It is all vivid, vulgar, chilling, witty, but most of all -- and this is Doyle's genius -- "A Star Called Henry" is hugely tender, a book that comes from a wise and empathetic heart. The reader is left yearning for more, and this is a promise Doyle's given. With any luck, he's already hard at work on the series' subsequent volumes.
Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Awards nonfiction finalist, which is out in paperback this month.