Category: Archive

Book Review The immigrant experience: personal and universal

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Eileen Murphy

‘TIS: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt. Simon and Schuster. 367 pp. $26.

Autobiography, by virtue of its intensely personal nature, allows readers a rare opportunity to peek inside someone else’s life. But writing the story of a life requires an author to pick and choose from an infinite number of memories. With the benefit of hindsight, recollections of the past are unavoidably altered.

The Frank McCourt presented in "Tis: a Memoir" is vastly different from the young Frankie who captivated readers in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Angela’s Ashes." The wide-eyed wonder of childhood lingers in the 19-year-old who stands on the deck of the MS Irish Oak, bound for the America of his dreams, an America where everyone has "tanned movie star legs" and teeth, white like pearls." But this innocence is almost crowded out by feelings of darkness, anger and loneliness.

While the older Frank may be less endearing than the child readers have taken to their hearts, he is a far more compelling figure. "Tis" is more than an autobiography; it’s a fascinating chronicle of the immigrant experience, a tale at once deeply personal and strangely universal.

Leaving home to escape the crushing poverty of the Limerick slums, McCourt arrives in New York with $40 in his pocket and no idea of how to make his way in the city. A priest who has, perhaps, absolved one too many sexual transgressors gets him a job sweeping up at the Biltmore Hotel, where McCourt resents the "golden girls" and the boys with the "football shoulders" who frequent the posh lobby, and who "pass remarks" about his sore eyes.

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"I don’t want to be a houseman where people look at me as if I were part of the wall," McCourt writes. "I see college students in the subway and I dream that someday I’ll be like them, carrying my books, listening to professors."

The dream of betterment sustains him as he cleans up after the privileged by day and reads Dostoyevsky by night, until the landlady in his $6-a-week room makes him turn out the lights, because, she nags, she’s not made of money.

Eventually "liberated" from the drudgery of his job at the hotel by Mao Tse-tung and the outbreak of the Korean War, McCourt is drafted into the army. There he is assigned to a canine-training unit before being transferred to the less exciting position of company clerk.

After the war, he lives in a succession of squalid boarding houses and drifts from job to job — unloading trucks, scrubbing toilets, processing loan applications — while yearning for an education. McCourt’s voracious appetite for reading convinces a dean at NYU to grant him conditional enrollment despite his lack of a high school diploma. He graduates with a degree in education, and becomes a public school teacher.

While at NYU, McCourt meets the quintessential American blonde, Alberta "Mike" Small. After graduation, they marry, have a child, buy a brownstone in Brooklyn, and try to settle down to a comfortable middle-class existence. But McCourt is depressed, unhappy, yearning for a nameless something he can’t find in the classroom or at home.

By writing the book in an almost constant present tense, McCourt gives "Tis" a movie-like quality. The story seems to be told as it happens, which allows the reader to feel the anger of the 23-year-old whose books make him a target for abuse at the warehouse, and the disillusionment of the 33-year-old who finds out his father hasn’t changed a bit.

There are times that McCourt needs to distance himself from memories, if not emotions. He shifts abruptly into past tense after his mother’s arrival in 1959, and this seems to reflect his troubled relationship with her and the drudgery of his teaching job at McKee Vocational and Technical High School on Staten Island.

McCourt is a subtle writer, and what he leaves unsaid is as intriguing as what he puts on paper. When his relationship with Mike progresses from casual to committed, he begins referring to her more formally as Alberta. When a fellow teacher goes from buttoned-down casual dress to shaven-headed biker regalia, he notes it without delving deeper. Describing his wedding and the party afterward, he takes pains to name all of the guests, but, interestingly, never mentions his family. Readers are left to wonder whether his mother and brothers were invited, and if not, why not?

McCourt’s relationship with Angela in the latter part of her life is fraught with anger, guilt and a fierce love. Her stubbornness irks him, her lack of activity worries him, her loneliness rebukes him. He quarrels with her constantly, and always regrets it later.

"Even in the bad days in Limerick she always had an open hand and an open door," he writes. "Why couldn’t I be like that to her?"

As his mother nears the end of her life, McCourt’s hard-won maturity deserts him. An almost childlike denial sets in as he watches Angela gasp for air from the combined effects of cigarettes and emphysema and obesity.

When she’s hospitalized for the last time, McCourt finds himself bickering with her over ephemera like blue razors. He tries desperately to ignore the signs of impending death, not allowing himself to connect the dots as her senses shut down. When she dies, McCourt is unable to cry. He feels, he writes, "like a child cheated."

Angela’s presence is felt indirectly throughout the book. She’s there in the Irishness McCourt tries to put behind him, the brogue he longs to lose, the memory of wrenching poverty that fills his head.

There are a few weaknesses in "Tis." Some significant events are left out, such as the early 1980s success of Frank and Malachy’s Off-Broadway show, "A Couple of Blaguards." He also, rather shamelessly, sprinkles in a few ashes of his first book by including essays, written in college, about his childhood. Though it’s natural to make reference to his early life, these passages were more regurgitation than recollection.

Because "Angela’s Ashes" was a worldwide phenomenon, "Tis: A Memoir" will have a hard time living up to expectations. But "Tis" is a beautifully written and powerful book, filled with humor and wit, sorrow and pain. McCourt expresses, in his simple and straightforward way, the profound sadness of adulthood: the dreams unfulfilled, the regrets over important things left unsaid.

The Frank McCourt who immigrated to America arose, figuratively, from the burnt offerings, the disappointments, the hardships of his mother’s life. In scattering Angela’s ashes, McCourt lays the ghosts of the past to rest, and is finally able to rejoice in the happy memories of her life.

‘Tis, no doubt, a comfort.

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