Also check out the latest Busted Halo Cast about Frank McCourt.
Deanna, my ex-girlfriend, grew up in Boston. Recalling her early home life, she would sing a litany of parental neglect, substance abuse and financial mismanagement. Apparently, the one bright moment came when she saw one of her friends break most of her toes in a step-dancing accident.
I envied her. She would never have to search for her Irishness.
My own connection with the land of St. Brigid and Molly Bloom was much more tenuous. My mother’s family had left it sometime before the outbreak of the American Civil War. My father’s family, consisting of Polish and Ukrainian Jews, never made it there in the first place. Reaching backward across the Atlantic forced me to build my own bridge. Being the product of my adolescent tastes, it was, of course, a bridge of kitsch, with Pogues music serving as the piers and Cagney movies as the planks. By the time I reached my twenties, I found the structure so shameful and ungainly that I abandoned it. Later, when I saw M.C. Everlast, House of Pain’s L.A.-raised front man, flash his pro-IRA tattoo to an MTV reporter, I thought: There but for the grace of God go I.
Angela’s Ashes — McCourt’s memoir about moving from Brooklyn to Limerick, and finding nothing but superstition, starvation and bad weather — found me in a skeptical and unforgiving mood. My mother had thrust it upon me as airplane reading when I left to study in Moscow, during the summer of 1997. It stayed in my duffel bag. The jacket photo, which featured a barefooted urchin sporting a jaunty grin, somehow reminded me of The Commitments and every other piece of twaddle designed to produce plastic Paddies of the type I’d narrowly avoided becoming.
But after three weeks, the strain of thinking in Russian, with its three genders, six cases and perfective and imperfective moods had me crying for twaddle. One rainy afternoon I gave in and cracked it. Only those who have experienced the snobbery of the insecure grad student will know my shame at finding myself utterly engrossed. I finished it in an afternoon, and then, a couple of afternoons later, read through it again. I returned to it many times over that summer.
Addictive Angela’s Ashes
Perhaps the book’s addictive property owed something to my surroundings. Russia is, after all, a fine place to contemplate poverty, alcoholism and potatoes. But there was more to it than that. In McCourt’s memoir, I recognized the inversion of a tired formula. Whereas so many who worked the Irish-American market settled for being grotesquely cute, McCourt managed to be cutely grotesque.
Here, McCourt recounts how the simple act of delivering a sympathy telegram to a recently widowed Englishman turns into yet another battle in an 800-year-old race war. In his teenage scrupulosity, he imagines that signing the Cross on the dead (Catholic) wife’s head with a drop of sherry might expiate the sin she committed when she married a heretic. The woman’s husband’s bursts in, catches young McCourt in the act, and fumes:
What the bloody hell are you doing? Get off my wife, you wretched Papist twit. What primitive Paddy ritual is this? Did you touch her? Did you? I’ll ring your scrawny neck.
I – I, —
Oi, Oi, speak English, you scrap.
I was just, a little sherry to get her into heaven.
For the next several paragraphs, the man alternately berates and threatens McCourt, and stuffs him — literally — with sherry and ham. Succumbing at last to terror and nausea, the boy leaps from his captor’s window, vomits on his rose bush, and arrives back at the telegram office to learn he’s been sacked. After a (rare) friendly priest intercedes, one of his harridan supervisors reinstates him. Whatever outrage McCourt’s sudden flight and upset stomach caused the Englishman, she rationalizes, counts for little compared to the misery inflicted on her own countrymen, by the English, during the Great Famine.
McCourt the alchemist
Gradually I learned that cute grotesquerie is, among Irish-Americans, a well-traveled path to success in its own right. Denis Leary works it his way, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem worked it theirs. But McCourt was an alchemist. He gave his romp through the sod just enough heart and conscience to appeal to the sort of people who take their cues from the New York Times bestseller list. More than that, he made those good people miss the joke altogether and assume that his stories were literally true in every detail. Readers flocked to Limerick, where, doubtless, they expected to meet singing newsboys who’d been dropped on their heads and charming, stout-sodden storytellers.”
Naturally, they didn’t. In fact, quite a few burghers of Limerick, judging correctly that McCourt could have subtitled the book “Portrait of the Artist as He Escapes from a City full of Yokels,” snitched on him to the press. The McCourt family had been much better off than he was claiming, they swore. Frank was a Boy Scout and hadn’t even told anyone. Besides, he’d always been a whining little punk whom no one had liked — his book was his revenge. But no one demanded an apology. McCourt’s grim version of his childhood was so captivating that the American reading public decided, as the Irish themselves are said to have decided long ago, that truth should never get in the way of a good story.
Much as I like to play the cynic, I’d be lying if I said that blarney had lost its hold over me completely. Though McCourt has little good to say about the Catholic Church, his stories did, in a small way, enhance the ambience of my own faith journey. One time, after confessing in a strange church, I heard a rumbling Irish voice ask from behind the screen, “Arrgh, what shall your penance be? Can ye say t’ Rosary?” Though the question was rhetorical, I could not resist playing along. As meekly as any of the students at Leamy’s School, I answered, “I can, sir.”
McCourt’s artful exaggerations found me just as I was preparing to drop out of a journalism grad program. The search for facts was proving a terrible drag. Checking them exhausted me. When interviewing subjects, I’d forget to ask the important questions. Too ashamed to schedule follow-up interviews, I’d fill in the gaps with my own speculations. If these had been actual newspaper pieces, rather than classroom assignments, I might have become the next Stephen Glass, or the first Jayson Blair.
Instead, McCourt (along, it must be said, with David Sedaris and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation) gave me the moxie to mine my own life for the touching and bizarre. If the facts need stretching, stretch ’em — at least in the small things — and to hell with the begrudgers.
My mother once ran into Frank McCourt. When she told him she taught a memoir-writing course at NYU, he rolled his eyes and sighed, “God help us all.”
Indeed, sir. God help those of us who raid both sides of the border that separates fact from fiction. You’ve already done your bit.
Also check out the latest Busted Halo Cast about Frank McCourt.
Originally published July 21, 2009.