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Book Review A somber ‘Song’ — and a great read

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Terry Golway

SINGING MY HIM SONG, by Malachy McCourt. Harper Collins. PP 242. $35.

This is the second volume of Malachy McCourt’s memoirs. The first, the bestselling "A Monk Swimming," was uproarious and hell-raising, which was exactly the image that McCourt cultivated during his early years in New York. "Singing My Him Song" has its share of laughs, all right, but it is a far more reflective book, a deeper book; in short, it is precisely like the Malachy McCourt we know today: sober, mellow, at peace with himself and his life, and yet still capable of wit, irony and, sure, the occasional bit of bombast.

I laughed my way through "A Monk Swimming" but came away wishing for more there there. Well, McCourt’s there is here, in "Singing My Him Song." Here we read about the angry, righteous battle he and others waged against the state of New York and popular opinion on behalf of developmentally disabled children, including his stepdaughter, who were warehoused in a Dickensian disgrace called Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. McCourt devotes a chapter to the Willowbrook Wars, which he, his wife, Diana, and a brave band of parents and advocates eventually won. McCourt’s description of the place in the mid-1960s is powerful and angry, and should remind us of what is done to children in the name of humanity: "A look at Diana told me she was stunned by the desperate savagery of this pitiless place, littered with twisted and grotesque bodies, writhing and rocking on floors gleaming with the slime of every excretion a human body can produce. Strange, high-pitched howls and low groans rent the air . . . "

When the McCourts joined with other families and advocates to call attention to this horror, they were denounced as troublemakers and, yes, communists. I was a young newspaper reader on Staten Island during those years, and I remember reading the pompous attacks on people like Malachy and Diana McCourt. All they asked for was justice and a decency; they were treated as though they were enemies of the state.

In "Him Song," McCourt writes honestly and movingly about his struggles with alcohol and the effect his hell-raising had on his marriage and family. "During the late seventies and early eighties, I was sometimes very conscious of the galloping years and my lack of any real achievement, the general wastefulness of my life. . . . [It] never occurred to me that I was important to my children. . . . While I was off gallivanting, Diana was creating a magical place for the children."

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These kinds of heart-wrenching moments make "Him Song" a wonderful and poignant read. Yes, there’s plenty of rip-roaring tales of McCourt’s years as an actor trying to make a name for himself, hanging around with the likes of Richard Harris and others. Those expecting the outrageous will not be disappointed. He writes of a disillusioned Harris giving up on acting and going to work behind the bar of Malachy’s, McCourt’s first bar. "Harris poured with abandon and without measure and never seemed to take money from any of the clientele," McCourt writes. "One eve, a couple of cheery and quite inebriated elderly ladies told me that the bartender was a very nice young man as he refused payment for the bottle of Dom Perignon they had imbibed. The hand was clapped to the forehead on receiving that news."

Harris soon gave up his bartending gig and returned to London. "None too soon, sez I to myself," his former employer writes.

But these tales are not the heart of the book. They are quips, asides, in a brave tale of redemption. In the final pages of the book, with the McCourts on the verge of becoming THE McCourts in the early 1990s, we learn that Malachy was battling depression. He overcame it, with the help of the book’s hero, his wife, Diana, and went on to become the star of print, video, stage and screen he is today, in the autumn of his life.

His journey has been memorable, and we’re lucky he decided to share it with us.

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