Pluck of the Irish
BACK WHEN HE WAS TEACHING ENGlish at Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School, Frank McCourt would urge his students to follow the cardinal rule of writing: Use what you know. The kids, spellbound by their teacher's accounts of his own stunningly impoverished Irish past, "would say, 'Our lives are boring. Your childhood was interesting,' " McCourt recalls. "They were envious of my misery."
Now they can marvel at his success. Last fall, at 66, McCourt published a memoir filled with his strikingly unembittered tales of growing up in Limerick in "one of the juiciest slums this side of Bombay." Titled Angela's Ashes (in part because his mother, Angela, often stared gloomily into the family's cold grate), the book—McCourt's first—will earn its author $1 million for paperback rights and recently became the country's No. 1 nonfiction bestseller. Says fellow memoirist Pete Hamill: "The tale has been told before, but the way he tells it is fresh and new. The book is a triumphant work of art."
"I didn't think it would catch on like that," says McCourt, who retired from teaching in 1987 and lives with his wife, publicist Ellen Frey, in a Manhattan apartment. "My dream was to have a Library of Congress catalogue number, that's all." But he adds, "If the luck of the Irish came to me, it's about time."
In truth he must have been partially blessed just to have survived his childhood. Born in Brooklyn to recent-immigrant parents, Frank was 3 when his infant sister Margaret died of unknown causes. A year later, McCourt moved with his parents and three younger brothers to Limerick, where his struggling laborer father, Malachy, hoped to find work. Find it he did—there were jobs to be had at the local cement factory and flour mills—but he drank away nearly every bit of his wages. "We were below welfare," says McCourt. "We begged from people on welfare. My father tried to repair our shoes with pieces of bicycle tires. And I never felt full; the first time [I did] was when I was hospitalized with typhus at 10."
The family continued to be besieged by tragedy: In 1935, 2-year-old twins Oliver and Eugene died of pneumonia, one six months after the other. His mother reacted with "banshee screaming at the gravesides," says McCourt. His father drowned his grief. "After Eugene died, he went out and got a white coffin, and I saw him at the pub with the man who drove the carriage. They had their pints on top of the coffin," McCourt says. "It was one of the most disturbing moments of my early life, seeing that disrespect."
McCourt's brother Malachy, 65, an actor on the soap One Life to Live, believes humor got them all through. "In reality our life was worse than Frank wrote," he says. "Insane outbreaks of laughter saved us."
That, agrees McCourt, and some not insignificant pleasures. Home may have been a dank cottage that often flooded with sewage from the neighborhood outhouse, and school "a place of terror where they used the stick or the strap if you didn't have everything letter perfect," yet he learned to love reading. "When a new book came to the neighborhood," he says, "we couldn't wait for it to get passed around." The Catholic church "put on a hell of a show—the music, the liturgy, the drama." And his parents, beleaguered though they were, never stinted on love.
"I had moments with my father that were exquisite—the stories he told me about Cuchulain, the mythological Irish warrior, are still magical to me," says McCourt. "If it hadn't been for alcoholism, he would have been the perfect father, and my mother—who would sing love songs about him when there was a little money coming in—would have been so happy. I'm haunted by the possibilities of what might have been."
As it was, Malachy senior left his wife and four sons (Michael, now a bartender, was born in 1936; Alfie, a maintenance supervisor, in 1940) and headed for England in 1941, ostensibly to work and send home his pay. None ever came. By the time he was 19, Frank had saved enough from delivering telegrams to head for New York City, where his mother and brothers eventually joined him. He found work on the loading docks and in 1954 talked his way into New York University. "I had never attended high school," he says, "but I was fairly well read."
Equipped with an English degree, he took a series of teaching jobs, married and divorced twice ("They just didn't work out," he says) and had a daughter, Maggie, now 25 and a student, with whom he remains close. All the while his book-to-be was bubbling beneath the surface. "I wrote a long version of it in the '60s, and it was just appalling," says McCourt. "The voice of the kid wasn't ready to come out." Once it did, says his wife, Ellen, 42, whom he met through friends and married in 1994, "it all came spilling out. I got the early read and I knew it was good."
Yet the book, which ends when McCourt is 19, has hardly exhausted his material. Still to be told, for instance, is the story of his father's reappearance in America in 1963. "He writes and tells my mother he hasn't had a drink in three years," says McCourt. "So he comes and he drinks all over Brooklyn. Then he decides he will renew his physical relationship with her. She runs next door, calls the cops, and he's gone. We never could figure out how he got back to England, since he left his passport at my mother's house."
A sequel covering the years up to his parents' deaths (Malachy died at 85 in 1985; Angela at 73 in 1981) is on the agenda. But for now, McCourt is adjusting to success ("I feel guilty about indulging myself") and preparing to be a visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Limerick later this year. "Despite my miserable life there, I've always been fond of Limerick," he says. "It's like a marriage that's gone sour, but you are haunted by the intensity of emotion that you felt. I can't get it out of my system."
MARY HUZINEC in New York City and JEFFREY KLINKE in Limerick
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