A Monk Swimming

Lucy Grealy reviews 'A Monk Swimming' by Malachy McCourt.


Lucy Grealy
May 21, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Malachy McCourt's memoir, "A Monk Swimming," picks up the McCourt story -- begun in his brother Frank's "Angela's Ashes" -- in New York City, where Malachy arrived in 1952, at the age of 20, bearing not only the rich Irish accent that was his heritage, but also the infamous gift of gab. These things served him well: He became a colorful character not only as an actor -- he was a regular guest on the Jack Paar show, appeared in several films and in a number of plays -- but also in real life. He has often and gleefully drunk to excess, a habit that causes him to take frequent stabs at being preposterous: showing up naked at fancy bars; shocking expat Russian royalty by praising the revolution; haphazardly immersing himself, briefly, in the international smuggling trade.

Malachy McCourt is the embodiment of a certain Irish type; a talker, a drinker, a wit. It's very easy to picture him sitting next to you in some pub, swallowing his Johann Barleycorn (whiskey) and holding court. Still, as lovable a rapscallion as McCourt may be in real life, the raconteuring doesn't equal literary style. The average chapter length here is only about four pages, which, while creating the sense of a fast read, never allows anything or anyone to be described or pondered over in any real depth. Events both large and small, horrifying and gorgeous, are given the same quick quip treatment. Rather than use his obvious alacrity with language to his advantage, McCourt unfortunately reduces almost everything to a colorful saying. This is most obvious whenever he's describing sex, his own or someone else's: "inserting his sausage into a different lubricious casing every night" being just one example of the level here.

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It's heinous, I think, to judge books against larger moral frameworks, and it's preposterous to ask McCourt to come to terms with his mythic drinking. But this would have been a far richer book if he'd chosen to ask questions in a style more conducive to insight than, for example, wondering why the Catholic church would rather a man sleep with a prostitute than masturbate: "Why ... is it less of a sin to stick the winkie into a paid lady than to wank? Theologians, please note."

McCourt captures the lilt of a coarse Irish accent perfectly with colloquialisms and a rhythmic juggling of syntax. Frequently, and this is what saves the book, McCourt's phrases really do hit the mark; one man is wonderfully described as having "the look of Jesus after a few bad days with the Romans." Electric fans do the "air-wafting duty." A rendezvous is in "some pretentious little orifice in a wall on the East Side." This ability to shape language is, as I said, what makes this book worthwhile. A better idea would have been to use this talent as a starting place for the book. With McCourt's passion for words as a means rather than an end, what a gorgeous memoir this might have been.

Ultimately, I don't think McCourt creates a genuine voice for himself so much as he accurately conveys the sound of an already established voice -- a voice you could easily argue is a stereotype. It's a hard-drinking, hard-living Mick telling this often shaggy tale, and if you're a die-hard Erinophile, then this book's for you. If you want a wee bit more than that, you might be disappointed.


Lucy Grealy

Lucy Grealy is the author of "Autobiography of a Face." She lives in New York.

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