It might have been better for Frank McCourt if insults and ordeals had followed the publication of Angela’s Ashes three years ago. The now-famous memoir proved that he has an alchemical genius for taking misery, defeat, doom, and doors slammed in his face, and wringing out of them a mix of pathos and humor as dark, deep, and potent as a pint of stout. His new memoir, ‘Tis, proves it all over again, and had Angela’s Ashes been rudely kicked around it would have just provided him with more good material.
But of course his account of growing up dirt-poor in Limerick, parked on the best-seller lists for years, has won a Pulitzer and a chestful of other medals, and has been made into a movie, due out this Christmas. Reviewers called the book unforgettable, stunning, a masterpiece — and for once, they weren’t exaggerating. It drew Dickensian characters, Swiftian ironies, and Joycean streams of consciousness out of a ragged boy’s observations, humiliations, and defiances, all in a simple, deadpan, Irish-inflected prose.
So what can McCourt do after writing a classic? He continues the story, in the same wry, understated key. The last word of Angela’s Ashes was ”’Tis.” It was his response to the rhetorical question of an officer on the Irish ship he was taking, in 1949 at the age of 19, to America: ”Isn’t this a great country altogether?”
America, where he had been born (Brooklyn) before removal to Limerick, was the consoling hope that ran through the bleakness of Angela’s Ashes, kept alive by his love of American movies. But once Frank is back in New York, fate starts cursing him again. The fat Irish-American priest he met on board the ship kindly offers him a share of a hotel room, gets him a job, and then, after a few martinis, takes a decidedly unfrocked interest in him, which Frank narrowly escapes. The job the priest finds him is emptying ashtrays in the famous Palm Court lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, where generations of elite college students met for dates. If the students aren’t mocking Frank’s bad teeth and chronically red, infected eyes, they’re looking right through him, yet he’s so provoked by the girls’ healthy American beauty that he periodically retreats to the men’s room to, as he vividly puts it, ”interfere” with himself.
In a Chaplinesque sequence, an usher throws him out of a movie theater after he smuggles in a lemon pie and ginger ale to enhance Olivier’s Hamlet. He spends his first American Christmas wandering the streets alone. If he stops to ponder the fate of his movie-fed American dream, cops tell him to move along, buddy. There’s a punitive spell in a regimented boardinghouse and hard labor in a warehouse. The Irish-American girl he falls in love with drops him for an insurance man, and he abandons his own attempt to go into insurance, going instead into Irish pubs.
Yet America begins to reward his wavering faith, usually when he least expects it. The Army provides farcical complications but also escape from his dead-end jobs. The one black man at the warehouse becomes a father figure who teaches him the value of education. Despite never having been to high school, he wedges himself into New York University, and the beautiful blond New England girl he meets there casts off her football-star boyfriend and, after mishaps and a slapstick wedding at city hall, becomes his wife. He moves from teaching restless students at bad high schools to teaching restless students at good ones.
Not that this becomes a complete success story. There’s trouble with his mother, Angela, and, after the birth of a daughter, trouble in his marriage. But as in Angela’s Ashes, the disillusion and confusion conceal a near-heroic persistence that never calls attention to itself amid McCourt’s modest, droll prose.
Angela’s Ashes has the advantage of a child’s stark perspective and is closer by every measure except time to Dickens’ London than to late-20th-century America, and so has a concentrated power ‘Tis can’t match. But this book has the same clairvoyant eye for quirks of class, character, and fate, and also a distinct picaresque quality. It’s a quest for an America of wholesome Hollywood happiness that doesn’t exist, and it’s about the real America — rendered with comic affection — that McCourt discovers along the way. A