Monday, July 20, 2009

The worst times were his best

By Don Klein

I first learned about author Frank McCourt on television as he was interviewed by Charlie Rose on his popular PBS show. I will be forever grateful to Rose in finding such a unique person who told such a singular story when he wrote about his early life in Limerick, Ireland.

McCourt died over the weekend but will be remembered as a late bloomer among authors. His first book, "Angela’s Ashes" was written after McCourt retired as a New York City high school teacher when he was in his sixties. It won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.

I was intrigued by McCourt that day I watched him on TV. He was a natural storyteller and when you combined his tales with his easy Irish brogue, the moment was too stimulating to ignore. I went out the next day and bought "Angela’s Ashes" not so much because I wanted to read it but because I wanted to reward McCourt with my exuberance for his personality.

Then, having already spent money to buy the book, I decided it would be cost effective if I read it. Normally it takes me weeks to read a book because I chew it in small bites – a chapter or two at a time – and usually am reading two or three other books at the same time. Not so with "Angela’s Ashes." I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in two days. (The only other book I recall reading so quickly was "Compulsion," the fictionalized version of the Leopold-Loeb case by Meyer Levin in 1956.)

I wish McCourt never would stop writing. His storytelling was spellbinding, his language lilting, his observations of people and events riveting. I rushed to buy his next two books "‘Tis" and "Teacher Man." They were not as good as his first, but they were better than many I read over the years.

Despite his Lincolnesque early life in terms of being destitute and self-taught he turned his dreary future around when he finally returned to the city of his birth, New York, and was able to matriculate at NYU and eventually get a job as a teacher in the largest school system in the country. He earned a master’s degree from Brooklyn College later.

His best years as an English teacher were at Peter Stuyvesant High School, which holds a particular warm spot in my memory because that was where my father attended almost a hundred years ago. He was a natural storyteller as so many Irishmen I knew were and his students suggested he put these stories into a book for others to enjoy.

Once he retired and in his mid- 60s, he began writing, but his first book was hardly the kind to entertain children at school. It was the book that eventually brought him fame, a grueling tale of painful early years in which three of his siblings died in childhood, where his drunken father squandered what little he earned as an unskilled laborer at the local pub, of his mother’s heroic and tragic efforts to provide food for a family of four growing boys, and of a pompous, uncaring clergy which dealt out charity so arrogantly as to make Scrooge seem like a philanthropist.

Yet McCourt told this story in a language that gave honor to letters. You couldn’t help feeling the poverty as if it was you own and for once, at least for me, I understood that food was the primary driving force in life. Hungry people will do anything for food. Angela’s tragedy was foisted on her by others – her ne’er do well husband, her relatives, her community, her church, and yet she managed to raise four boys, all of whom now live in the United States in comfortable circumstances before she died.

Published in 1996, "Angela’s Ashes" sold more than 4 million copies around the world and brought instant celebrity and wealth to McCourt. It tore at the hearts of many and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography in 1997. Many of Irish extraction in the US took exception to the explicit biography and many more in Ireland despised McCourt for what they called maligning Limerick. Nevertheless, he was later awarded an honorary doctorate from Limerick University.

I am a contemporary of McCourt’s and grew up during the depression as he did. The difference was I lived in America while he lived in Ireland, and my father was not a drunken wastrel. Nevertheless, compared to what kids have today I was a pauper, but I never knew it. There was always a sufficiency of food in a protective home. Not so for McCourt, and reading about real desperation and poverty in the stylistic prose of a passionate and skilled writer was to make the pain of such victims a gut-wrenching reality.

He was an excellent storyteller, but like the best storytellers, the stories he told were about himself. He made me think of Ernest Hemingway and Khaled Hosseini, author of "The Kite Runner."

McCourt’s first book was a triumph about the turmoil of his early years in Ireland recalling the strife and pain of being hopelessly poor. The other books were about his life as a teacher, and was less popular with readers. In one of those life’s twists, it appears when writing books the worst of times are the most interesting for others.

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