INTERVIEW FRANK MCCOURT
'Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt's brilliant and tender memoir of his miserable Irish Catholic childhood in Limerick, Ireland, is a deeply moving story and a very funny book. It is the writer's first book, and it seems to have become a literary sensation almost overnight.
"When I was a kid," he says, as we sit on a park bench in Stuyvesant Square in New York, not far from Peter Stuyvesant High School where he taught English and creative writing for 15 years, "I was a pretty good runner, and there was nothing like winning a race. But this thing is such a big shock to me, because I thought it was a modest book, which would be received modestly - it deserves to be received modestly."
Mix of humor and pathos
What has surprised critic and reader alike is how a childhood of poverty, illness, alcoholism, and struggle, in an environment not far removed from the Ireland of Swift's "A Modest Proposal," came to be told with such a rich mix of hilarity and pathos. A story, moreover, seemingly spoken right in your ear by a generous, perceptive, and yes, merry little boy, so that loss and desolation are continuously transformed into music itself.
"Well, it took me a long time," he says in his soft brogue, "even after my parents were gone."
After his return to America, where the memoir leaves off, there was work on the docks, service in the Korean War, classes at New York University, and teaching at McKee Vocational and Technical on Staten Island. "And I went on the road with my brother Malachy. We were doing a show, a cabaret, called 'A Couple of Blaguards,' about growing up in Ireland and our adventures in America. And then I lived in San Francisco, when my daughter was a teenager. I was trying to get her through high school, and she would run off and chase The Grateful Dead.
"So then I came back to New York and did a little teaching here and there, but all the time this book was beckoning. It was an itch, because I had notebooks filled with stuff about Limerick, about growing up there, catalogues, lists, snatches of conversation, things about my mother and father, and I had to write it."
Angela was Frank McCourt's mother, and the memoir opens on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn during the Depression, upon her attempts at family life. She sings when there are wages and talks to herself when there are none, and her husband comes home drunk from the pubs singing patriotic songs and gets the boys out of bed to line them up and make them promise to die for Ireland.
When Margert, the new baby, dies, the family ships itself back to Ireland, to the lanes of the Limerick slums where things are worse. Twin boys die, dad goes on the dole, and the Brooklyn cabbage leaves are replaced by times of near starvation.
McCourt grins, "Mam was always saying we had a simple diet, tea and bread, bread and tea, a liquid and a solid, a balanced diet, what more do you need? Nobody got fat." Young Frank carries a pig's head through the streets for Christmas dinner and picks up coal on the Dock Road to feed the fire to boil it. He pinches a loaf of bread. But there is laughter.
Salvation through Shakespeare
When precious pennies are given to send him to learn Ireland's national dances, he spends the sixpence on the Lyric Cinema (Charlie Chaplin! James Cagney!) and then makes up "national sounding" dances to show his parents at home, conjuring names like The Siege of Dingle, or The Walls of Cork, to go with his improvised steps.
It was "dancing" words that saved him. While recovering in a typhoid ward, young Frank finds his first lines of Shakespeare. "It's like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words. If I had a whole book of Shakespeare, they could keep me in the hospital for a year," he says.
The lines are spoken by Catherine, wife of Henry VIII, to Cardinal Wolsey, who wants to behead her: "I do believe, induced by potent circumstances/ That thou art mine enemy." The grown up McCourt recites them now. "I'd no idea what induced or potent circumstances meant! And can you imagine, I was 10 before I discovered I could read a a bit of Shakespeare, and then only embedded, because we had no access to books, we had no access to Shakespeare, Shakespeare was not in schools."
But the young Frank does begin to read in earnest, finds the library, even gets a job composing wildly imaginative dunning letters for a local landlady, and so makes his own the language that has been in his ears all his life.
Fond, but harsh memories
When Dad leaves for England during World War II and there's no telegram or money anymore forever, Frank gets a real job as a telegram boy and saves to leave for America.
Somehow in the book he has kept alive a clear image of his father, up early every morning, reading him the news in a whisper and retelling him about the great world, an image to set beside the smell of whiskey and shame of abandonment.
"When I first went up to see my editor, I was with my agent, and my editor said, 'Well, what have you been doing all these years?' And my agent said, 'He's been in recovery. From his childhood.'
"I couldn't have written this book 15 years ago because I was carrying a lot of baggage around, as we like to say now, and I had attitudes and these attitudes had to be softened. I had to get rid of them, I had to become, as it says in the Bible, as a child, and the child started to speak in this book. And that was the only way to do it, without judging."
Perhaps the warm reception the book is having stems from a widespread need for forgiveness?
"Well, the reception has a lot to do with family relationships," he says. "One young woman out in Minneapolis said to me, 'This helps me deal with my father.' Because, you know, there's great luxury in being angry.
"And you can watch the Irish in the North of Ireland, or the Israelis and the Palestinians, and around the world, and Louis Farrakhan can get up or Gerry Adams or all the Orangemen in the North, and say be this or be that, or be some hyphenated ethnic thing, but it's all artificial; it drains you, everybody being angry, drains you, and it comes between you and your humanity."
And isn't "Angela's Ashes" a book of splendid humanity? To quote the last chapter of the book in its entirety: