by Frank McCourt
Published by Scribner
367 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt is very hot these days, especially now that Angela's Ashes, the memoir that caused all the literary stir, has just been made into a high-profile movie. With his first book McCourt somehow managed to spin a charming, darkly funny and even entertaining tale about his shockingly impoverished boyhood in Limerick in the 1930s. The jury is still out as to how truthful his memoir was (the folks in his home town are still up in arms about it, claiming he was unfair to the Catholic Church, and one can almost hear his late mother Angela exclaiming, "It's all a pack of lies!").
But truthfulness is not the point. McCourt has the gift that every Irishman (and every writer) prizes. It's in the telling, not in the events themselves, that he holds his audience in thrall. He does it again in 'Tis, the much-anticipated sequel in which McCourt takes up the story in his young manhood.
In writing any kind of sequel, no matter how strong, McCourt may have set himself up for a degree of failure. No other book could equal Angela's Ashes in its phenomenal and highly unlikely success. Not many 65-year-old retired schoolteachers end up winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature, after all. And the subject matter of his first book was the primal territory of childhood memory. That said, 'Tis is an irresistibly appealing book in its own right because McCourt has such a delicious way with language that you forget he is writing about very ordinary things.
In 1949 at the age of 19, McCourt escapes the third-world poverty and religious suffocation of Limerick to seek his fortune in America. He is so ignorant of the ways of the larger world that during his first stay in a New York hotel he dries himself on the bath mat. From miserable poverty in his homeland he experiences miserable poverty cleaning the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel and suffering intensely with a kind of terminal awkwardness and alienation. He seems to feel he exudes poverty from his pores and that everyone can smell it. Certainly his image of himself is abysmally negative; "Paddy-off-the-boat", a "bog-trotter" with a thick brogue and a horrible chronic eye infection that gives him "two eyes like piss-holes in the snow".
When he is drafted into the army during the Korean war it is a kind of step up. McCourt makes it seem as if he drifted into a coveted clerical position by chance, but it is obvious to his readers that his keen intelligence must have had something to do with it. Not only that, McCourt has more personal charm than he will let on (it can't help but come through in people's reactions to him), making us sometimes feel all his moaning about himself is just so much blarney.
What makes us forgive him over and over again is the humor. When he visits Limerick on parole to show off his uniform, everyone gushes over him: "Even Mrs. Purcell is telling me I'm looking grand and she's blind." Others warn him not to be too cocky: "Don't be putting on airs here, Mick, I knew you when the snot hung from your nose to your kneecaps."
Poverty is as much a state of mind as a financial condition and McCourt stays with safely menial jobs for a long time. It's a tortuous road that leads him to further his patchy and inadequate education. Finally he musters the nerve or the will to try, enrolling in New York University on the GI bill. It's the beginning of a new kind of life for him, though he doesn't realize it at the time. He is too busy feeling overwhelmed and inadequate and drowning himself in alcohol to realize he is beginning to release himself from generations of ingrained poverty. When he meets and marries a beautiful blonde Protestant woman and finds a respectable job as a high school teacher, it is as if he has captured the American dream.
But old demons die hard. No one drinks as much as McCourt did unless they are trying to escape something. Over and over again he refers to the "dark clouds in my head," followed by great uncontrolled binges in the pubs. His father was an irresponsible alcoholic who abandoned the family to near-starvation. But it is wincingly painful to read McCourt's jolly account of his being falling-down drunk at his own wedding and of failing to show up for important dates with his wife because he had something more important to do at the bar.
There is a curious lack of awareness of how destructive all this was. He blames the eventual failure of his marriage on class differences, never mentioning the drink and all those painful absences. It seems unlikely that McCourt even thinks of himself as an alcoholic. Oh, yes, his pub-owning buffoon of a brother Malachy might qualify, but Frank is the one who made good in the world.
This lack of awareness (or responsibility) makes 'Tis a frustrating read, sometimes flat and even shallow where it should be three-dimensional. But it's hard to detect this letdown until near the end of the book because McCourt out-and-out seduces us with all his delightful Irishisms: "You're out on your picky tonight, Madeline." "I'll give ye a good clither on the gob." "A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse."
The book is at its most poignant when he reflects on poverty and its connection to paralyzing shame. When his mother comes over to visit in 1959 with his little brother Alphie, he is shocked at the sight of them. "When they emerge from the customs shed there's a piece of broken leather flapping from Mam's right shoe so that you can see the small toe of a foot that was always swollen. Does it ever end? Is this the family of the broken shoe? We embrace and Alphie smiles with broken blackened teeth. The family of broken shoes and teeth destroyed. Will this be our coat of arms?"
McCourt also shines when describing his sometimes hair-raising adventures in the classroom. The first words out of his mouth at his first teaching position in a tough vocational school are, "Stop throwing sandwiches." It takes him years to find his rhythm ("I'd like to be Irish when it's time for a song or a poem. I'd like to be American when I teach," he admits), but eventually it becomes clear that he was born to teach. His gift is to awaken in his students the same love of language that lifted him out of the slum, not just the literal slum of his upbringing but the mental prison of shame.
His students have their own way of expressing their gratitude, especially on March 17: "There is a greeting card two feet by two wishing me Happy St. Paddy's Day with a collage of green paper things, shamrocks, shillelaghs, whiskey bottles, a drawing of a green corned beef, St. Patrick holding a glass of green beer instead of a crozier and saying, Faith an' Begorrah, it's a great day for the Irish, a drawing of me with a balloon saying, Kiss Me I'm Irish. The card is signed by dozens of students from my five classes and decorated with happy faces shaped like shamrocks."
McCourt seems to call forth these responses from people. His memoirs reveal him as a complicated, fatally charming, not always entirely honest human being with a superb gift for language and a way with a story that makes your head spin. Though 'Tis is as flawed as McCourt himself, it's dizzyingly enjoyable, a little like getting drunk. What keeps it from greatness is McCourt's seemingly constitutional incapability of being honest with himself. If this storyteller's evasiveness, this sliding by on blarney is part of the Irish psyche, then McCourt has just written the most Irish book in the world. | January 2000
MARGARET GUNNING has reviewed over 100 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has just finished her first novel, A Singing Tree.