Say what you will about America and about the publishing industry, the fact is that surpassingly strange things, miracles almost, still happen in both. Would anyone have believed, say, five years ago, that one of the decade’s biggest books would be a memoir of a desperately poor Depression childhood, written by an unknown retired schoolteacher? Like any book or movie or cultural phenomenon that captures the public imagination unexpectedly, Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” was a beneficiary of its time and place. The hysteria for all things Irish (or, still more dubiously, “Celtic”) was at its height in 1996. Fifty-year anniversaries of D-Day, the fall of Berlin and the Hiroshima bombing had focused the nation’s attention one last time on the Depression generation, which, as Bob Dole’s presidential campaign demonstrated in tragicomic fashion, was finally relinquishing its hold on American society.
“Angela’s Ashes” is a fable testifying to the redemptive powers of two things turn-of-the-century Americans desperately want to believe in: storytelling and America itself. We read about a half-starved boy with infected eyes and rotten teeth, scrounging the docks of Limerick on Christmas Day for loose lumps of coal so his mother could finish cooking a half-boiled pig’s head, and we know he grew into a man who could write about such things with humor, tolerance and even love. You can argue — and some critics did — that “Angela’s Ashes” was shamelessly sentimental, and that it played to Irish-Americans’ hazy, half-imaginary notions of their tragic origins. In the finest Irish tradition of “begrudgers,” former neighbors of the McCourts in Limerick assured visitors that all had not been as the ungrateful Frankie depicted it, and that other families had had it worse. But the secret of “Angela’s Ashes” is simple and has little to do with the Irish mythology of suffering: Nothing in Frank McCourt’s miserable childhood could quench his compassionate spirit or his love of life.
For me — and, I imagine, for thousands of other children of immigrants — it was impossible to read “Angela’s Ashes” with dispassion. My own father was growing up poor in Dublin during the same years McCourt was growing up poor in Limerick, and I identify the two so strongly that I suspect my critical judgment of McCourt’s work is compromised even as my feeling for it is enriched. We all look for things that speak to us personally in whatever we read, but in this case the histories are uncannily similar. Both were born to immigrant families in New York (just three years apart) and then sent “home” to Ireland as young children after their families’ fortunes turned sour in the Depression. Later, both returned to America as teenagers, worked their way through college, and went on to teaching and writing careers (McCourt in the New York City schools, my father at the University of California).
I don’t think my great-grandmother’s household was nearly as desperate as the McCourts’, but it wasn’t a picnic either. Around the time young Frankie was out hunting for coal on the docks, my father was gathering mussels along the rocky seafront of Clontarf, on Dublin’s north side, so his grandmother could cook them in buttermilk for the family’s dinner. (Anytime we ate in a restaurant that served mussels, my dad would tell this story again, by way of explaining that he’d never pay for the damn things in his life.) In both families, the stories vary, “Rashomon” style, depending on who is doing the telling. My father remembered his Irish childhood as years of cold, hunger, loneliness and want. His aunts and cousins remember a loving, almost genteel household, straitened by circumstance, in which my father was the pampered prodigy.
Like my father, Frank McCourt grew up dreaming of that gold-paved, sunlit paradise across the ocean where he had been born, and to which he would one day return. “‘Tis” is literally the last word of “Angela’s Ashes,” following and affirming the sentence “‘Tis a great country” — referring, of course, to the United States. This moment of boundless, naive optimism provides both a title and a starting point for the second volume of McCourt’s memoir. This book takes its narrator — his charm, human sympathy and yarn-spinning ability intact — from his return to New York in 1949 up to the death of his mother, Angela, in the mid-1980s (when Angela’s actual ashes finally play a role in her son’s story). And while ’tis indeed a strange and in many ways wonderful country this young man encounters, he finds in it almost as much misery as he left behind.
“‘Tis” is virtually guaranteed to be a bestseller, but it faces an impossible obstacle in trying to please readers of “Angela’s Ashes.” It’s almost certain to be seen as something of a disappointment.
If childhood presents a clear narrative — the goal of every child is to survive and escape — adult life offers no coherent story line, or perhaps too many. “‘Tis” thrums with vivid details drawn from McCourt’s life as a laborer, soldier, student, husband and teacher. You can count on him to side with the downtrodden, lampoon the powerful, resist the Irish tendency toward racism and closed-mindedness, capture dialogue magnificently and recount comic anecdotes at his own expense. But we’re rarely sure why we meet the many characters he encounters as he careens through colorful, mid-century New York, or where exactly he is going.
Most of “‘Tis” takes place during the ’50s, as McCourt begins the painful immigrant’s journey of loss and reinvention. Lonely and uncertain, he works at menial jobs and lives in rooming houses until he is drafted and sent to Germany, and as a result he can visit Limerick in his U.S. Army uniform as that most exotic of creatures, a “returned Yank.” An autodidact who has read Dostoyevsky and Melville despite never graduating from high school, McCourt then literally talks his way into New York University’s School of Education, choosing his career virtually by chance. He falls in love with a willowy WASP goddess and eventually marries her, although it doesn’t work out. (My father did that too — that’s why I’m here.) Then “‘Tis” fast-forwards across three decades at breakneck speed, to focus on Angela’s last years, when she moves to New York to be near her sons. (It’s puzzling that McCourt’s several brothers, including the actor and tavern owner Malachy, himself now the author of a memoir, are never more than shadowy, half-formed presences in “‘Tis.”)
If anything, the doleful, almost aimless quality of “‘Tis” seems like a counterbalance to the fable of transcendence told in “Angela’s Ashes.” The boy in McCourt’s first book dreams of leaving Limerick and poverty behind, but the man in his new book discovers that leaving your homeland is not the same as escaping your provenance. “Fifth Avenue tells me how ignorant I am,” the adult McCourt reflects during a late-night meander, after his WASP girlfriend has temporarily dumped him. “There are the window mannequins in their Easter garb and if one of them came to life and asked me what kind of fabric she was wearing I wouldn’t have a notion. If they wore canvas I’d spot it straight away because of the coal bags I delivered in Limerick and used for cover when they were empty and the weather was desperate … I could never point to a dress and say that’s satin or wool and I’d be lost entirely if challenged to identify damask or crinoline.”
Perhaps the principal theme of “‘Tis” — although it’s never acknowledged — is that adulthood, and especially manhood, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This is a book full of lonely, anguished men, from Digger Moon, a Native American carpetlayer in Manhattan’s Biltmore Hotel who is sometimes “so overcome by the sufferings of his people” he refuses to work; to Peter McNamee, a fellow immigrant and meatpacker who bounces from one Bronx rooming house to another and dreams of moving to Vermont to become “some kind of American Protestant”; to Corporal Dunphy, an Army lifer and sentimental drunk who weeps for the family he abandoned back in Indiana. McCourt can’t help comparing this catalogue of lonesome losers to his own father, who went off to work in England in the 1930s — along with many other Irish men — but spent everything he earned in the pubs of Coventry, ignoring his near-starving family.
But the most haunted figure in this landscape is certainly Frank McCourt himself. At his first American job, cleaning out ashtrays in the posh Palm Court at the Biltmore, he is embarrassed by his bad eyes and teeth and intimidated by the crew-cut boys and blonde girls who “meet and sit and drink and laugh, nothing on their minds but college and romance, sailing around in the summer, skiing in the winter, and marrying each other so that they’ll have children who will come to the Biltmore and do the same.” My father had some of those jobs, too. When he was a pin-setter in the Chase Manhattan Bank’s executive bowling alley, the young Yale-grad bankers liked to roll their balls down the lane while he was at work, just to make him dance.
More than 20 years later, confronting his radical-chic, tie-dyed students at Manhattan’s exclusive Stuyvesant High School, McCourt still feels the humiliation and bitterness of the new immigrant: “I’m standing here … looking at you, the privileged, the chosen, the pampered, with nothing to do but go to school, hang out, do a little studying, go to college, get into a money-making racket, grow into your fat forties, still whining, still complaining, when there are millions around the world who’d offer fingers and toes to be in your seats, nicely clothed, well fed, with the world by the balls.” My father too would come home from teaching freshman English in a blind fury, enraged by the Berkeley brats who wanted to know how Milton’s “Lycidas” was relevant to Vietnam, and who didn’t understand that a smithy was a building rather than a man.
I believe McCourt intends “‘Tis” to be the story of a man who has come through, who learns enough from his painful life experiences to become a reader, a thinker, a teacher and finally a writer. Well, I’m sure my father wanted me to see his life in much the same way, but as sons always will, I judged him harshly and saw his weaknesses as paramount. There are crucial differences between them. For one thing, McCourt is a far more graceful and natural writer than my father ever was (my dad tried to compensate for his awkwardness and insecurity by knowing everything about every subject), and telling his story must go at least part of the way toward relieving its pain. But I can’t help myself — the Frank McCourt I believe in is the one who seems most familiar to me, most real. McCourt writes that he always cries when he sees the green checkerboard of the Irish countryside through an airplane window, hearing in his mind his mother’s jibe: “Your bladder must be near your eye.” My father cried at that sight too, despite his claims that he loathed his childhood, and I think that, like McCourt, he never felt quite at home in either Ireland or America.
Beneath the genial, deceptively casual prose of “‘Tis,” McCourt paints an unflattering portrait of himself as a drinker and a drinker’s son, a chronic depressive, a bad husband, a loving but highly flawed father. I know this picture and I believe it. My father’s father fell in front of a subway train in 1931, probably boozed to the gills, possibly a suicide. So the Frank McCourt I believe in is the man who gets so loaded on his own wedding day that he gets in a ferocious barroom brawl and provokes his wife to throw her wedding ring out the window. The man plagued by dark moods, indigestion and petty jealousies. The teenage boy who, after finally reaching the city of his dreams, is afraid to go outside and lies on a rooming-house bed in the dark playing childhood memories over and over again and thinking, “It’s magic to go back to Limerick in my mind even when it brings the tears.”