Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Irish Eyes Were Cryin'

It might be a bit obvious for a book blog to highlight the late great Frank McCourt on St. Patrick's Day, but the fact of the matter is, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author wrote one of the best accounts of Irish life I've ever read.  Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoirs of a Dublin Woman is also a good book to read over a pint of stout and a slice of soda bread, but Angela's Ashes has it beat for a singular, unforgettable reading experience.

Last night, I was waffling on whether or not to post a pair of decade-old reviews of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis when I got a phone call from my wife from the Chicago airport.  On the flight out of Montana, she'd sat next to a chatty older gentlemen named Rick who said he was a devout reader.  The book he pulled out of his carry-on bag, saying it was "an incredibly well-written memoir"?  Angela's Ashes, of course.  That sealed the deal for me.  Did I mention that my wife is currently en route to Great Britain for a two-week vacation?

So, for your St. Paddy's Day fix, here are my reviews (both written back in 2000) of Frank McCourt's first two books.

*     *     *

Has there ever been a worse life than Frank McCourt's?  Angela's Ashes, McCourt's memoir of his hard-boned early years in Limerick, describes an existence so horrible it would have given Dickens nightmares.

I was wrenched inside-out as I read about the struggles of the McCourt family (father Malachy, mother Angela and children Frank, Malachy, Oliver, Eugene and Margaret).  Life--in the form of the Irish addiction to a wee bit o' drink--has beaten down the elder Malachy until he is no longer able to provide for the family. He flees to find work in England but neglects to send any money home, leaving his wife and children, already living in squalor, to further fend for themselves. They steal and beg and tear wood from the walls to burn in the stove. They get their nourishment from tea so weak it's just colored water. They live like sardines in a flat so miserable that every year they have to cram themselves into an upstairs room when winter floods and overflowing toilets make the place only half-habitable.

The memoir--an astoundingly detailed recollection--is a series of vignettes of poverty, cruel schoolmasters, and disease and death.  Angela's Ashes would not be the phenomenal success it is without the poignant voice of Frank McCourt who tells his story in a manner that's gritty, realistic and never self-pitying.  Here, for instance, is our introduction to the streets of Limerick:
From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week's wages.
I'm sure the Limerick Tourist Association never sent McCourt any love letters. Still, it's possible to see the author's nostalgic attachment to the city--if only as a benchmark of the place where he triumphed over bad luck, disease and indigence.

McCourt is as clear-eyed when it comes to describing the people in his life. Take a look at our initial introduction to the wayward head of the house:
My father, Malachy McCourt, was born on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. Like his father before, he grew up wild, in trouble with the English, or the Irish, or both. He fought with the Old IRA and for some desperate act he wound up a fugitive with a price on his head. When I was a child I would look at my father, the thinning hair, the collapsing teeth, and wonder why anyone would give money for a head like that.
The prose is never flowery or padded. It gallops forward in a breathless stream of consciousness that will have you alternately wanting to take it slow to savor each word, while rushing ahead to see what's next. Save for the closing pages when Frank finally escapes Ireland and boards a boat for America, there is no relief from the grim, unrelenting struggle of this family. But McCourt always manages to find humor and joy even in the darkest hours.

As he writes in the opening paragraphs, "When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while."  While I would never wish hard times on anyone, I'm glad they visited Frank McCourt. We are all the richer for his awful childhood.

*     *     *

Here’s the first thing you need to know about Frank McCourt’s second book: ’tisn’t as good as the first.  But of course the twinkle-eyed Irish gent set an impossible-to-beat standard for himself with Angela’s Ashes.  His memoir of poverty and survival in Limerick’s slums was overwhelmingly sad, funny and--most of all--honest.

With ’Tis, McCourt’s tale continues where he left off in Angela’s Ashes--on board a freighter as it sails from Ireland to New York.  The next-to-last chapter of that book ended with the question "Isn’t this a great country altogether?"  The last chapter consisted of a single word: ’Tis.

With the against-all-odds success of his first memoir, published when he was sixty-five, is it any wonder that McCourt would want to continue the momentum of his charming storytelling?  ’Tis no wonder ’tall.  While it may seem unfair to compare the two books, it's true this sophomore effort doesn’t pack much of a punch as a stand-alone memoir.  The weakness of ’Tis is easy to pinpoint: there’s just not enough of a story between the covers.  There are times when McCourt seems to be stretching his life to fit the number of pages, instead of shrinking the number of pages to fit his life.

Once McCourt arrives in New York City in 1949, his tale becomes a connect-the-dots odyssey of a young immigrant making his way in America during the post-war years. ’Tis is hampered by the truth-is-sadder-than-fiction events in Angela's Ashes.  Nothing could possibly be as bad as McCourt’s squalid childhood and, here in ’Tis, the events of his later life pale by comparison.

Nonetheless, it’s a bit of a relief to see how well McCourt triumphs over his squalid beginnings.  Don't get me wrong; he still scrapes and struggles even after he arrives in America, the Promised Land.  We watch him scrounging for low-paying jobs like emptying ashtrays at the Biltmore Hotel or unloading freight at the dockyards.  He joins the Army, but instead of going to fight in Korea, is shipped off to Germany where he learns how to type and discovers great writers like Melville and Dostoevsky.  He returns to America, cons his way into New York University and eventually gets a job teaching high school.  Along the way, he wrestles with the demons of his father’s waywardness and the Irish penchant for drink.

He’s anxious, unsettled, looking for his place in the world.  As he tries to assimilate into American culture, he outruns his heritage like it was a dog nipping at his heels:
Why is it the minute I open my mouth the whole world is telling me they’re Irish and we should all be having a drink?  It’s not enough to be American.  You always have to be something else, Irish-American, German-American, and you’d wonder how they’d get along if someone hadn’t invented the hyphen.
Later, when he’s sitting quietly in his college class, he confesses:
There are times when I wish I could reach into my mouth and tear my accent out by the roots.  Even when I try to sound American people look puzzled and say, Do I detect an Irish brogue?

What I admire most about ’Tis is the same thing that made me fall in love with Angela's Ashes: McCourt’s distinct, easy-flowing style.  He tells his life story in an ironic and self-deprecating tone of voice, sprinkling it with just enough salty humor to make you mark the place on the page with a finger while you stop to have a good chuckle.

By now, however, McCourt has run out of life to relate; after ’Tis, I doubt there’s much left to tell.*  For his next book, I wouldn’t mind seeing a novel.**  He’s got a good ear for dialogue and a keen eye for describing characters and wouldn’t it be a lovely thing altogether if he was to fashion a funny little novel out of his imagination?


*Of course, there was: Teacher Man, published in 2005.
**Sadly, this never happened before the cancer-stricken McCourt died in 2009.

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