'Tis hard to follow a great first book
'TIS By Frank McCourt Scribner 367 pp., $26
Writing a great book is hard, but writing a second great book is much harder. The shadow cast by that initial triumph can seem especially dark.
Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" burst onto the literary stage in 1996, won the Pulitzer Prize, and spent two years on the bestseller list.
Young Frank, as millions know from the first book, is a person of deep humanity and warm humor who survived horrible poverty, illness, and tragedy, and carried family responsibilities that would have crushed a boy of lesser spirit.
Unfortunately, the title isn't the only thing that's endured contraction in this sequel. "'Tis" picks up with McCourt's arrival in New York in 1949 as a 19-year-old of astonishing naivet and wearisome self-pity.
Frank seems closer to 9 than 19. He's quickly taken in by a creepy gay priest and plied with lemon meringue pie. "If this is the way they eat all the time in America," he mugs, "I won't be a bit hungry and I'll be fine and fat."
When he finds it difficult to fit in, he collapses into despair: "If this is the way it's going to be in America I'm sorry I ever left Ireland. It's hard enough coming here in the first place without priests criticizing you over your failure to hit it off with rich Kentucky Protestants, your ignorance of bath mats, the state of your underwear and your doubts about aftershave lotion."
It's hard to believe this is the same young man who endured so much with such grace back in Limerick, Ireland. He and his family once lived in a room over raw sewage, but now he's filled with self-pity that he must "go around a hotel lobby cleaning up after people." Too often the memorable tragedy of his first memoir inadvertently mocks the relatively minor trials of this sequel.
The flames of "Angela's Ashes" have burnt down considerably, but there are still wonderfully bright moments in this book whenever McCourt moves away from himself.
When Angela comes to live near her sons in America, for instance, the old tensions between mother and Frank are strung to perfect pitch.
His portrayal of his lonely landlord caring for a son incapacitated in a Nazi death camp demonstrates the cleareyed sympathy that made "Angela's Ashes" so wonderful. And when Frank worries if saying a Christian prayer for the Jews murdered at Dachau is offensive, we know we're in the presence of a great writer.
McCourt's humor is in rare form throughout, too, once he finally stops trying to mock his naivet. The book is packed with hysterically odd characters: the landlord who won't give his tenants sausage unless they attend mass; the naked philosopher who walks into his apartment and won't leave; the man who becomes irate if anyone uses his toilet paper.
His witty satire of life in the Army recalls the zany comedy of M*A*S*H. (One officer assures him that accurate typing is the key to military victory.)
The book's final third is particularly strong. After Frank manages to graduate from NYU on the GI Bill, the only teaching job he can get is at a vocational school on Staten Island. (His brogue disqualifies him everywhere else.)
His unruly students have been ignored for the first half of the year by a teacher counting down to retirement. Frank just barely keeps control - most of the time - and runs afoul of the administration when he tries to introduce literature the students enjoy reading.
His greatest success, then as now, comes from autobiographies. He finds reams of long abandoned essays in a closet in the back of his classroom, some written by parents and older siblings of his students. Just as we do in this uneven book, these kids discover how powerful writing can sometimes be.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society