Death Need Not Be Fatal
By Malachy McCourt with Brian McDonald
259 pages, $27
By Michael D/ Langan
You probably know of Malachy McCourt, the Irish writer and raconteur. Likely you remember his brother, Frank McCourt, (1930 – 2009), who wrote “Angela’s Ashes” (1996), a memoir of hard times as a youth in Limerick, Ireland. It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
Malachy McCourt, (1933 - ) is the younger, rascally brother of the McCourt boys. He was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Limerick, “grimy and patched.” Earlier, twins in the family, Oliver and Eugene (1932) came along, and, later, a sister, Margaret, who died seven weeks after her birth in 1935.
Of his life in this book, Malachy says he “did a bit of dishwashing, long-shoring, military service, bartending, stage acting and saloon owning.” If you hung around Irish pubs like "Malachy’s" and "Himself" years ago in New York, you couldn’t miss him. He would be the entertainment at various venues, telling jokes after what passed for dinner. During the day he was an actor on the soaps, “Ryan’s Hope”, “All My Children,” and others.
The cover of Malachy’s “Death Need Not Be Fatal” alone is worth a couple of bucks as a chuckle. It pictures himself smiling and alive in a casket. He’s there in white, fluffy repose, arms over his chest. His neck is turned to the right, looking at you, giving a weird, “I’ve got mine, Jack” smile, as if he’s pulled one over on death.
Of course he hasn’t. But he is coming to the end of life’s journey at age 85.
The end can be tough. Some welcome it, others do not. For those who believe in an after-life, death isn’t "fatal" at all. It isn’t final. It’s the start of a body and spirit revivification that leads to an eternal life in communion with God.
Death not being fatal is the arch, cosmic joke on Lucifer at the end of human life. But not so for Malachy, as he’s abandoned all beliefs. McCourt expresses these ruminations as an atheist with the logic and faith structure of a former Catholic. To wit:
“I’ve come a long way in my beliefs,” he writes. “I started out life as a member of the One Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church, and I am coming to the end of it without organized religion or mystical thinking. I am an atheist, thank God, with no fear of hell and no hope of heaven.”
It’s evident that McCourt is a tough guy who’s legitimately angry with the Catholic Church. He gives instances of the church failing its duty to the poor and impoverished. In Ireland, there was and is clear evidence of this.
For example, he accuses two priests by name of abusing him as a child. There's nothing funny about it. Child abuse in Ireland (and elsewhere) will take years from which to recover.
In addition, he describes scary tales of Catholic teaching that critics ridiculed.
Here’s his account of what an "imperfect" act of contrition and a "perfect one" was in the Roman Catholic Church of the 1940s:
The imperfect act goes like this, he says: “Listen, God, I am sorry to have done all those rotten things as I’m really terrified of going to hell and having my pee-pee dipped in molten steel for all eternity … so I hope you can bring your famous amnesia to bear on all the things I’ve done that piss you off.”
The perfect act of contrition, he writes, lets you know the sinner has wised up: “Listen, God. I’m awfully sorry I sinned, because you are such a terrific, merciful, compassionate, and open-minded good sport, and the sorts of things I’ve done are very distasteful and an affront to the wonderfulness of you. I’m sorry, and what I did to Jesus is unfortunate.”
These remarks are jokey, but they have an accurate sense of theology’s distinctions underlying them to make them funny. In the end McCourt says “If you could substitute the word love for God … I would be the most religious person in the world.” I understand why McCourt feels this way; he feels that he's been aggrieved by the people who should have helped him feel God's love.
I'm tempted to think that McCourt uses his penurious childhood and self-abuse as an alcoholic as cudgels to remind the reader of how he has conquered life nevertheless, and what a great boyo he's become through it all. But I'm not tempted for long. I don't think I could handle his life's problems. Much of his humor is near to tears. My mother would call me an "Omhadan" when I did dumb stuff as a kid. The word means "idiot" in Irish. It stopped me from doing more mischief than I did.
Words and actions from Malachy's father or the pastor of the parish in Limerick to young McCourt might have prevented such a lifetime of pain.
Where were they when he needed them?
Michael D. Langan is a book reviewer for The Buffalo News. He has U. S. and Irish citizenship.