By Frank McCourt
368 pages, $26
I wish I could be more affirming about Frank McCourt's extended memoir of his life in the United States, " 'Tis," especially after the success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angela's Ashes," which told of his life in Ireland and America as a young boy.
" 'Tis" is McCourt's coming-of-age saga: A near-penniless young man, born in America, returns to America from Ireland in his late teens in October 1949 on board the steamer Irish Oak to seek his fortune. " 'Tis" tells the story of how he developed skills to recognize his dream, and details the adversities he overcame to become a teacher in New York City.
The memoir features plenty of "dark clouds," especially when McCourt thinks of his impoverished past and how it has affected him and how to explain his troubles to others in Ireland and in America. For example, he wants to tell relatives of his stoicism (but doesn't):
But my grandmother is frail and I have to control myself. My face feels tight and there are dark clouds in my head and all I can do is stand and tell them my father drank all through the years, drank when the babies were born and babies died and drank because he drank.
McCourt is a fine writer, if redolent and one-noted in his reminiscence of terrible poverty, bad eyes, worse teeth and flushed, hyper-sexed 19-year-old demeanor. " 'Tis," however, is "Paddy-Irish": one rum-or-Guinness adventure after another. There's a sense in the reading of having heard the stories before, perhaps at a late-night bar with plenty of cigarette smoke and sad songs of Ireland wafting in the background.
McCourt would have us think he is a combination of Peck's Bad Boy, Studs Lonigan and Huck Finn in this new memoir. But there is too little art and too much artifice for the comparisons. He gets drafted, works as a dog trainer and company clerk, with tours of duty and trollops in Europe, courtesy of the U.S. Army. He never tires of putting on the innocent act, a kind of "Education of Henry Adams" in reverse. The author takes on jobs that include working as houseman at the Biltmore Hotel, a dock and warehouse laborer, and a reviewer of loans at Manufacturer's Trust Co. With no high school diploma, McCourt enrolls in evening classes at New York University and eventually gets a job teaching at a vocational school in Staten Island.
Every writer of a memoir tells his story in his own way. In McCourt's case, a series of anecdotes cleverly told and strung together sustains his dream of going to college, the paradigm of making it in America, even though he never got a high school diploma in Ireland. But McCourt's rendition, with its evocation of Sean O'Casey's stridency, makes one long for the comparative reticence of other Irish storytellers such as FrankO'Connor or William Trevor.
McCourt rides too many hobby horses: "my miserable childhood, brutal schoolmasters, the tyranny of the Church, my father who chose the bottle over the babies, my defeated mother moaning by the fire, my eyes blazing red, my teeth crumbling in my head, the squalor of my flat . . . my hard days at McKee Vocational . . . older teachers telling me to whip the little bastards into shape, the younger ones declaring our students are real people and it's up to us to motivate them."
McCourt's love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church and his emphasis on his sexual sins is overdone. He "out-Augustines" St. Augustine in his exposition of adolescent impurities. Describing temptations at his work in the Palm Court of the Biltmore, McCourt writes of his debasement:
These are the days when the girls take off their coats and the way they look in sweater and blouses is such an occasion of sin I have to lock myself in a toilet cubicle . . . and I have to be quiet for fear of being discovered by someone, a Puerto Rican busboy or Greek waiter, who will run to the maitre d' and report that the lobby houseman is . . . away in the bathroom.
It's one thing to mark out sexual activity, "the excitement," as he calls it, and episodes of "interfering with himself," as a young man. But the excessive reference is wearying.
Do we really want to know this? Is it funny? If these matters for confession weigh too heavily upon McCourt, he might better visit the nearest church than burden us with a litany of indecencies.
A word about the name of the novel, " 'Tis." The word is used variably in the novel, affirmatively and negatively. At one point " 'Tis" indicates where a plot of ground lies, outside of Limerick, that has been planted for vegetables by McCourt's Northern Ireland father. Regrettably, it has been picked clean for revenge by Free Staters. Another time, " 'Tis" is the reply of Frank McCourt back for a visit, when he's asked by a Limerick denizen if it's himself. Still another time " 'Tis" is the response of McCourt's mother when McCourt's actor brother, Malachy, says it's a beautiful New York City morning.
In the end I agree with McCourt's wife, Alberta, who tells him: "Stop the whining. I've heard enough about you and your miserable childhood. You're not the only one. I was dumped on my grandmother when I was 7. Do I complain? I just get on with it."
Frank McCourt's mother told him that his bladder was too close to his eye. " 'Tis" proves that she was right about that. The tear is on a tear in " 'Tis." There is a powerful lot of pathos -- and as much bathos -- in McCourt's memoir. Some will find the combination satisfying, others nauseating.
In any case, it seems time for this talented writer to "get on with it" and find something other than his life to write about.