August 1, 2009
He had his devotees and his detractors, but as far as this reviewer is concerned, one thing about Frank McCourt is and remains indisputable. Frank McCourt could flat out write. He had battled hard against melanoma and meningitis in recent months, but his death does not silence him.
His legacy, framed by the beyond-his-wildest-dreams success of Angela's Ashes, will endure not only for the seamless craftsmanship of his prose and his uncanny knack of capturing dialogue and a speaker's very cadence, but also for the way that he changed the literary landscape in the memoir genre. In many ways, virtually every memoir that followed McCourt's "begged, borrowed, or stole" from his inimitable way with words.
McCourt burst upon the literary world in 1996, when Scribner published Angela's Ashes, his gritty, poignant, heart-wrenching, and often achingly humorous memoir of his impoverished, sometimes tragic, childhood in New York and Limerick.
After a career of teaching English and creative writing in the New York public school system, McCourt's "second act" in life bloomed when reviewers' praise and readers' word-of-mouth sent sales soaring beyond Scribner's modest 25,000-copy first run of the book. Eventually, Angela's Ashes was published in 25 languages and 30 countries, hitting the heights of bestseller lists worldwide and staying there, perhaps the ultimate case of the non-celebrity memoir, the extraordinary life of an ordinary man.
"F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. I think I've proven him wrong," McCourt later said. "And all because I refused to settle for a one-act existence, the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools."
In America alone, his books have sold more than ten million copies. Angela's Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a major film, and even though McCourt's subsequent memoirs - 'Tis and Teacher Man - did not reach the success of Angela's Ashes, they still garnered numbers for which most authors long.
Controversy dogged McCourt for his searing accounts of life in Limerick. Even in 2003, when this reviewer was in Limerick, many locals made no attempt to hide their anger at him. They questioned his veracity and his accuracy about his hardscrabble years there, furious at his depiction of the meanness and humiliation he, his mother, and his siblings encountered there. From the opening passages of Angela's Ashes, McCourt telegraphed where his memoir was headed: "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 father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years." Limerick bore the brunt of that in McCourt's pages. Neither McCourt nor the city fully resolved the uneasy relationship between author and place. Malachy McCourt, Frank's brother and also a bestselling author, has always acknowledged that Frank had "unfinished emotional business with Limerick."
At an event in Manhattan for Dublin's Abbey Theatre in December 2004, this reviewer talked at length with Frank McCourt about his work and both the acclaim and controversy it engendered. "I found myself elated and bemused at the same time," he said. "I'd been a teacher of English and writing for so many years, and now, after this book, people I'd known for years looked at me in a different light - as if they were pleased and even startled that maybe I'd known all those years what I was talking about in the classroom.
"The best part was hearing from the kids I'd taught. They were delighted that I had known what I was talking to them about all that time."
Touching on both the perks and the downside of sudden fame, McCourt mused, "I wasn't prepared for it. Still, here it was, and I've done my best to deal with it."
When it came to the printed page, Frank McCourt's best was something special. His evocative and memorable words will stand time's passage. To my mind, the bar for literary memoir was set to new heights by Angela's Ashes. To critics and reviewers who picked and pecked at the book and the author, their rips proved futile and small-minded. Readers delivered the verdict on Frank McCourt - he was a man who could make words leap, dance, wound, and move.