In appreciation of Frank McCourt

The life of Frank McCourt represents what you could almost call the perfect storm of memoir writing: an innately gifted storyteller met a life so eventful – desperate and otherwise – that it fairly cried out to be narrated. Or so his students always told him.

For the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Angela's Ashes" was not just a writer but also a teacher. And apparently the stories he told his students were so compelling that they regularly urged him to write a book. When, in 1996, he finally did – and achieved almost instant success – he never forgot to credit the high schoolers who helped him to arrive there.

McCourt's death yesterday at the age of 78 will be noted around the world today. That's a circumstance that hardly could have been predicted when he was born in Brooklyn in 1930 to struggling Irish immigrants Malachy and Angela. In fact, the family met with so little success in Depression-era New York that in 1934 they packed up and moved back to Ireland. There, however, they sunk into even more dire circumstances, with Malachy drinking up what little money he could earn.

It was a dark story of life on the lowest economic rung and it took McCourt much of a lifetime to become ready to share it with the world.

"Well, it took me a long time [to write "Angela's Ashes"]," he told Devon McNamara in a 1996 Monitor interview, "even after my parents were gone."

At 19, McCourt returned to the US, worked in a hotel, served in the army, traveled on the road doing a cabaret act with his brother Malachy, and finally became a high school teacher in New York.

But the book was always somewhere in him, he told McNamara. "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."

So write it he did, but not with the anger and/or self-pity that might have been expected. As McNamara wrote, "What has surprised critic and reader alike [about "Angela's Ashes"] 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."

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