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Frank McCourt's career rose from 'Ashes'
"An autobiographical fact," the Irish playwright Brian Friel once remarked, "may be a lie and no less true for all of that."
Frank McCourt, who died Sunday just a month shy of his 79th birthday, would have appreciated Friel's sentiment, for "Angela's Ashes," the 1996 memoir of a grindingly poor Irish childhood that won its author a Pulitzer Prize and rather substantial wealth, relied on precisely that sort of Celtic elasticity.
"Angela's Ashes" was a genuine literary phenomenon -- a first book that sold 2 million hardcover copies and stayed atop the bestseller lists for more than 24 months.
McCourt was 66 and a retired New York City schoolteacher when "Angela's Ashes" was published, and few people ever have enjoyed success as thoroughly as he always seemed to or to have shared it as generously as he did. He assisted young writers, spoke to students and community groups whenever he was asked.
He seemed to many a kind of archetype of sly Irish wit and twinkling -- if sometimes biting -- humor. It made it easy to overlook the long years of struggle and disappointment, first over his failure to earn the PhD that would have taken him on to a college professorship and then the frustration with his inability to write.
It's just as easy to overlook that part of what distinguishes "Angela's Ashes" -- McCourt's other two memoirs, " 'Tis" and "Teacher Man" are of only minor interest -- is that it exists at the fulcrum of changes that were sweeping over Ireland and Irish America as well as the literature that belongs to both.
McCourt's memoir stands at the intersection of an ancient Irish tradition of storytelling (many of the anecdotes were honed for a stage show he and his brother Malachy performed around New York for years) and the high modernist literature, mainly James Joyce, the author so admired.
It arrived as Ireland, newly prosperous and highly educated, was shaking off the influence of the church, becoming what the critic Fintan O'Toole has called a "post-Catholic" country and Irish America was moving out from under generations of music hall sentimentality.
McCourt had hard truths to tell and, unexpectedly, there were millions of readers avid to hear them. His was a career that hangs on a single book as surely as that volume hangs on just three paragraphs -- its second, third and fourth:
"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
"People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.
"Above all -- we were wet."
The key is that one-sentence third paragraph, at once evocative and humorous. In fact, what redeems "Angela's Ashes" from being a book that makes you want to go out and hang yourself is that just when you think the ache of misery is too much to bear, the author interjects a note of humor -- often self-deprecating -- that restores the characters' humanity.
But was it true?
At the time, some outraged Limerick residents insisted not, and the local newspaper dredged up old photos of Frank and Malachy well dressed and their long-suffering mother sleek and fed. Still, if the McCourt family misery was neither as unrelieved nor as perfect as the author recalled it, his account "was no less true for all of that."
One could make a similar point about the creative breakthrough that made "Angela's Ashes" possible after years of faltering attempts. There were two failed marriages and much hard drinking, which frequently made him combative. A terminal break with the Catholic Church left him an acid-tongued and corrosively sarcastic anti-cleric.
"I was so angry for so long, I could hardly have a conversation without getting into an argument," he said. "It was only when I felt I could finally distance myself from my past that I began to write about what happened."
In recent years, McCourt -- who had a daughter with his first wife -- said he first recognized that "distance" while baby-sitting his granddaughter. As he watched her play, he envisioned a story written simply in the present tense with a tone of childlike detachment. "I had this extraordinary illumination, or epiphany," he said, "Children are almost deadly in their detachment from the world. . . . They are absolutely pragmatic, and they tell the truth, and somehow that lodged in my subconscious when I started writing the book."
Epiphany, of course, has a Joycean ring, and on several occasions, McCourt spoke of his long struggle to come out of the shadow of the great Modernist's influence.
A year after "Angela's Ashes" was published, however, McCourt told an interviewer for the Providence Journal a different story concerning the manuscript's composition. "After 20 pages of standard omniscient author, I wrote something that I thought was just a note to myself, about sitting on a seesaw in a playground, and I found my voice, the voice of a child," the author said. "That was it. It carried me through to the end of the book."
Maybe both things are true. I recall an afternoon spent in McCourt's company in a good New York Irish bar, pints of Guinness in our fists and glasses of Powers at our elbow. He recounted the story, familiar to those who've read the memoir, of how he first encountered ease and literature while in the hospital recovering from a boyhood bout with typhoid. His words somehow joined the thick white pages of Shakespeare with the crisp white linen of the starched hospital sheets into an Eden of security and wonder.
Was it true? Well, it should be.