Brutal Candor, the Sequel: McCourt’s Irish, Stateside

‘Tis: A Memoir , by Frank McCourt. Scribner, 367 pages, $26.

You have to be Irish to hate Frank McCourt.

You have to be Irish and see your father and mother, your uncles and aunts, your brothers and sisters, your cousins, in the characters in Angela’s Ashes and now in Mr. McCourt’s brilliant sequel, ‘Tis . You have to be Irish to rage against Mr. McCourt’s truth-telling, his alcoholic boyos, his wounded women, his embittered priests. You have to be Irish to say: We are not all like that, and who does he think he is, anyway? Sure, aren’t there enough people out there who think the worst of us, and isn’t he the cute hoor playing to people’s hatreds, talking about things that are best left unsaid?

Mr. McCourt is to the Irish of the late 1990′s what Philip Roth was to Jewish Americans in the late 1960′s. He enrages those who believe he is furthering stereotypes and comforting bigots who want their prejudices confirmed so they can say to each other: “See, they really are like that!” And so when he writes about nuns who secretly baptized Jews and thought Joseph McCarthy was doing God’s work, or when yet another of his feckless male characters falls victim to the Irish curse–the drink, what else?–some middle-class Irish-Americans see betrayal rather than candor.

Nearly three years have passed, and still the letters page of the Irish Echo weekly newspaper is filled with bitter condemnations of Angela’s Ashes , Mr. McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir. The letters come from assimilated Irish-Americans who either deny that things were so bad in Limerick during Mr. McCourt’s childhood or who insist that he shouldn’t be telling such stories of poverty, humiliation and alcohol. “

Mainstream American readers might be surprised to learn of the passions Mr. McCourt arouses among the Irish, because so many have come away from Angela’s Ashes , and will come away from ‘Tis , with an appreciation of the spirit, toughness, dignity and humor of Mr. McCourt’s Irish characters. But for some Irish-Americans still not entirely secure, still preferring celebration over honesty (we won’t name names here), Mr. McCourt hits just a little too close to home.

Mr. McCourt’s new book picks up the McCourt family saga with the author’s return to America, which is where we left off in Angela’s Ashes . He is in New York no more than a few days, and the reader is just getting settled in, when Mr. McCourt does his Portnoy thing: A repulsive, drunken priest he met on the boat from Ireland propositions him in the hotel room they are sharing. “He collapses on the bed on his back and I can see he’s in a state of excitement with his hand on himself. Come here to me, he says, and I back away.” At that point, any number of my close relations will probably put the book aside and mutter that they’ll be damned if they ever read any of Mr. McCourt’s dirty lies, and why doesn’t he tell us about the good work the priests do? That’s too bad, because ‘Tis is a remarkable and brutally candid exploration of one man’s life in New York, and Mr. McCourt is as tough on himself as he is on the racists and drunks and lost souls he meets along the way.

At this point, I suppose, I ought to mention that Mr. McCourt wrote a blurb for my biography of John Devoy, an Irish-American revolutionary, and that I occasionally run into Mr. McCourt and his wife, Ellen Frey, at social functions. Believe it or not, the circle of book-writing micks in New York is rather small, so it’s inevitable that our paths cross, although Mr. McCourt and Ms. Frey, being of sound character, no doubt wish it were not so.

In Angela’s Ashes , Mr. McCourt managed the remarkable task of telling a heartbreaking story without asking for pity. ‘Tis , because it deals with Mr. McCourt’s life from young adulthood and middle age, doesn’t have the same poignancy–how could it? But it is wrenching in a different and quite unexpected way. Here’s what he has to say when the woman with whom he has fallen in love, the daughter of an affluent New England family, tells him of being sent to live with her grandmother, away from her divorced parents: “This makes me wonder if ever I had been sent to live in comfort with a relation would I have missed my family? It’s hard to think I would have missed the same tea and bread every day … but I would have missed the way it was with my mother and brothers, the talk around the table and the nights around the fire when we saw worlds in the flames, little caves and volcanoes and all kinds of shapes and images. I would have missed that even if I lived with a rich grandmother …”

As Angela McCourt would say, my bladder was near my eye when I read that passage. It is Mr. McCourt’s answer, not that he needs one, to the begrudgers who complain about his portraits of the Irish. For all the misery in Angela’s Ashes , he would not have missed the talk around his mother’s table with his brothers. He would not have traded Limerick and his family for a life of chilly privilege. Lovely, just lovely.

Mr. McCourt recounts his stint in the Army during the Korean War, his determined and quite astonishing effort to win a bachelor’s degree from New York University, and his years of teaching at McKee Vocational-Technical High School on Staten Island and Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. There are terrific scenes from vanished New York of the 1950′s and 60′s, and his blunt descriptions of life as a public school teacher probably will do nothing to help the Board of Education’s shortage of classroom canon fodder. But for me, the heart of ‘Tis is Mr. McCourt’s battle with himself: Will he escape the Irish ghetto? What will he sacrifice in the name of respectability, of love? Will the bureaucrats at the Board of Education stifle him? Will he grow up or is he doomed to repeat some of his own father’s mistakes?

He falls in love with a fellow N.Y.U. student, marries her and has a daughter, Maggie. He dreams of being the dad his father wasn’t. “I’d wield a camera and assemble an album of milestone pictures, Maggie moments after her birth, Maggie on her first day of kindergarten, Maggie graduating from kindergarten, from elementary school, high school and, above all, college … That’s what I dreamed when I held her bottle, changed her diapers …” he writes.

But domesticity does not suit him. He looks with envy on his free-spirited brother Malachy, who by the 1960′s was a genuine New York character, a bar owner who went to swanky parties with actors and other celebrities while Frank marked papers and tried to figure out new ways of interesting high school students in literature. “It was too much for me,” he concedes. “I didn’t know how to be a husband, a father, a house owner … a certified member of the middle class.”

When he leaves his wife and Maggie, he is well aware of his failure and does not try to cloak it with talk of needing space or room for self-discovery. He is honest in every syllable, even when the result is not flattering. When his father dies in 1985, he is too honest to shed a tear; the extent of his hypocrisy is to stifle a laugh during the wake.

Angela’s Ashes was a book about Ireland. ‘Tis is a book about New York, a New York that some of Mr. McCourt’s readers will be discovering for the first time, the New York of public school teachers and dock workers and Irish dance halls. ‘Tis is the antithesis of those hip New York tales whose authors proudly boast that they write about nothing. Mr. McCourt is an authentic writer who does not fear the effects of authenticity. No wonder some people find him disturbing.