BOOKS

Rich little poor boy

An Irish memoir evokes poetry amid poverty

DIANE TURBIDE March 3 1997
BOOKS

Rich little poor boy

An Irish memoir evokes poetry amid poverty

DIANE TURBIDE March 3 1997

Rich little poor boy

BOOKS

An Irish memoir evokes poetry amid poverty

DIANE TURBIDE

Twenty years ago in New York City, Frank McCourt and his brother Malachy launched A Couple of Blaguards, a revue in which they told stories and sang songs from their penurious childhood in Limerick, Ireland.

Their mother, Angela, was in the audience, and in the middle of a sketch about the family hiding from rent collectors, she stood up and denounced it loudly as “a pack of lies.” The brothers then invited her on stage to give her version of events, but she declined, telling them—and the audience—“I’d not be caught dead up there with the likes of ye; I’ve a reputation to maintain.” Recalling that colorful episode in an interview,

Frank explained that his mother was ashamed of the abysmal poverty they had endured, as he himself had once been. “When my brother and I first emigrated to New York, we were passing ourselves off as the sons of a postman,” he says, laughing,

“as if that was the height of professions.”

In fact, McCourt, a 66-yearold former schoolteacher, is long past being ashamed of his background. His childhood memoir, Angela’s Ashes (Distican, $31), topped the nonfiction best-seller list of The New York Times in mid-February and ranks on several Canadian best-seller lists. And with 500,000 hard-cover copies in print in North America alone (it is also selling briskly in Germany, Britain and, of course, Ireland), the book has landed him a $1.3-million paperback rights deal and a movie option. It has been nominated for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and The Los Angeles Times Book Award, and is rumored to be a hot contender for this year’s Pulitzer, to be announced on April 7. “I can’t believe it, really,” McCourt muses. “I mean, all this for an epic of misery.”

Slight, down-to-earth and brimming with self-deprecating humor, McCourt is being

somewhat disingenuous. Part of the book’s appeal is the author’s ability to veer from the horrifying to the hilarious, all told through the fresh, urgent voice of the young Frank. His alternately funny and heartbreaking account of his life at home, at school, and on the streets and lanes of Limerick, give an exhilarating edge to the familiar outlines of Irish-Catholic deprivation—“the poverty; the shiftless, loquacious father; the pious, defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.” But in the next sentence, McCourt gently skews the clichéd scene with a mere five words, “Above all, we were wet,” and goes on to describe the particular torments of Limerick weather.

McCourt suffered all that, and more. His

father, Malachy, was a hopeless alcoholic who routinely drank away whatever money he could lay his hands on, whether it was the dole or wages from short-lived jobs. Frank and his siblings existed mostly on fried bread and tea, with the babies often fed only sugared water. Mother Angela begged at various charities for food, clothing and shoes, and more than once boiled a pig’s head for their Christmas dinner.

Yet amid the fleas, the smells and the deaths (McCourt’s two-year-old twin brothers died of pneumonia within six months of each other, while an infant sister died of unknown causes), there was love and laughter, unexpected kindness and even the odd treat. “When you’re down as low as you can get economically, it gives you a kind of energy you wouldn’t have otherwise,” McCourt reflects. “And there was a family, such as it was, and there was a community. We all had things in common: the Catholic church, school, songs and poetry—poetry was everywhere. That’s the paradox: it was a rich life de spite the poverty. It was economic desperation and a cultural richness that kept us going. That, and the dream of getting out.”

McCourt believes that most North American children today suffer from the very opposite of what he experienced. “They’re overloaded with material wealth I and inundated with too much ° information,” he says. “I feel I sorry for kids who have so much and yet so little. No family life, no songs, no sitting by the fireside with their father in the morning, talking and looking into the flames.”

It seems astonishing that McCourt can be so forgiving of his father, who more or less abandoned his four sons and wife when Frank, the eldest, was 11. Ostensibly, Malachy was going to work in England’s wartime factories, like many of McCourt’s neighbors, and would be sending money back to his family. But all too predictably, he drank most of it away and returned only a few times, turning up one Christmas without his top denture and with a half-empty box of chocolates. From an early age, McCourt recognized his ambivalence about a father who would entertain him with stories of Irish warriors and help him with homework one day, and show incredible callousness the next. “I think my father is like the Holy Trinity

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with three people in him,” he writes, “the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whisky and wants us to die for Ireland.”

Frank, who had been singled out as a gifted student, nonetheless dropped out of school at 14 and took on a series of menial jobs, including delivering telegrams and writing threatening—and unwittingly comic—letters to the delinquent customers of a dress-

maker. By 19, he had made enough to sail to America, the country where he had been born but had left at the age of four when his feckless parents returned to Ireland in search of better times. In New York, he worked at various odd jobs before enlisting in the U.S. army, and then attending university on the G.I. bill.

If the tribulations of his childhood made him a survivor, they also left him damaged. As a young man, McCourt says, he was “a mess: confused, vulnerable, fearful, uptight,

especially about women, and angry, above all angry. It lasted till my 50s, until I realized that it was the main driving force of my life.” Two marriages ended in divorce. Since 1994, he has been happily married to his third wife, Ellen Frey, a publicist, with whom he lives in a Manhattan apartment. McCourt says that it was his only child, Maggie, now 25 and the mother of a four-year-old daughter herself, who was the key to helping him sort out his conflicting emotions. “I could express love and tenderness with her, she unlocked it all.”

Teaching, as well, was his salvation. After McCourt had obtained an English degree from New York University, he began a 30-year career as a high-school writing teacher, which ended with his retirement in 1987. McCourt says that he felt a strong rapport with his students, and learned a lot from them. “If I hadn’t been a teacher, I would probably have drank myself to death,” he notes. ‘Teaching made a man out of me.” Occasionally, he would tell students his own stories. “They were tough critics; there was to be no self-pity with them. They’d say, ‘C’mon teach, we’ve got our own problems.’ ”

McCourt says he spent many years “fiddling”—writing bits of dialogue and small scenes of the book that eventually became Angela’s Ashes. Tucked away in a drawer is an early version, which he describes as derivative, pretentious and awful. “Whenever I start to feel smug, I take it out of the drawer and say, ‘Who wrote this crap?’ ” he says. But it wasn’t until 1994 that he started to write purposefully, and finished the manuscript in one year.

Last October, he returned to Limerick, where the mayor greeted him in his official robes. The book was launched at O’Mahoney’s Bookstore, where some 600 people turned up for the signing. As a scruffy boy, McCourt had been thrown out of the bookshop while trying to discover how Julius Caesar turned out. (He’d been introduced to Shakespeare when he was hospitalized for typhoid for two months at age 10: leafing through a book he had come across two lines ofThe Bard. McCourt remembers his reaction in Angela’s Ashes: “I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words.”) By way of apology, the management of O’Mahoney’s presented him with a complete set of Shakespeare.

McCourt will spend part of this year as a writer in residence at the University of Limerick, and will start the sequel to Angela’s Ashes. It will cover his adult life from his early years as an American immigrant (his three surviving siblings and his mother, who died in 1981, eventually joined him in the United States). McCourt pauses, then says he’s thinking of calling it A Pack of Lies. But McCourt and his readers know that, as Angela would have said, “ Tisn’t.” □