Category: Archive

Book ReviewNew McCourt memoir: Malachy’s private parts

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Mike Hudson

A MONK SWIMMING, by Malachy McCourt. Hyperion. 292 pp., $23.95.

This past winter, a friend of mine was bound for Cozumel and asked to borrow something to read on the trip. She travels quite a bit, and on a previous ramble I’d given her John Berendt’s “Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil,” which she had very much enjoyed.

In any event, I had a review copy of “Angela’s Ashes” lying about and handed it to her. A couple of weeks later we spoke, and I asked her how she’d enjoyed the trip.

“What were you thinking giving me that book?” she barked. “I sat on the beach for a week and cried.”

In hindsight, I’d have to say she was right. What was I thinking? Frank McCourt’s poignant memoir of a deprived childhood in Limerick was indeed hardly a suitable read for a vivacious pleasure seeker adrift in a land of bright sun, warm sand and cold margaritas.

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Next time I’ll make it up and give her Frank’s brother Malachy’s new memoir, “A Monk Swimming” which is ribald, hilarious and full of musical sentences and beautiful paragraphs – most of which cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper. This book represents the fraternal follow-up in a one-two combination the likes of which the literary world has not before seen.

Malachy’s narrative begins when he arrives in New York City – unlike Frank’s, which ends there – though, since he admits to no fixed abilities other than telling “stories and lies,” one can’t be at all sure of the veracity of many of these anecdotes. In discussing the importance of a strict adherence to the truth, the author himself states several times that “a good story well told is a good story well told,” which seems to be about all we need to know.

There’s his irreverent meeting with Prince Phillip and the queen of England, for example, or the night he showed up unannounced and uninvited at actor Richard Harris’s California manse, got naked and jumped into the swimming pool.

That in itself wouldn’t have been so bad, except that Harris had vacated the premises some time before, and the elderly dowagers who’d sublet the place called the cops. On another occasion, he protested a New York pub’s coat-check policy by going out to his car, removing his clothes, and reentering the establishment wearing only his overcoat, his shoes and socks. This time he gladly checked the coat, causing the female attendant to faint and starting a riot in the process.

McCourt book is full of such stories, along with the speedy retorts and witty rejoinders that go with them. Most of these disasters are preceded by drinking of fairly epic proportions, and there was some worry throughout that this was going to end up being one of those “Now-that-I’ve-quit-drinking-I realize-what-a-jerk-I-was” books, but such fears proved unfounded.

The author’s varied careers – raconteur, check-bouncer, gold smuggler, barman, television actor and minor celebrity – are recounted in an amusing and engaging manner that reminds one of Quentin Crisp.

The book is also full of celebrity gossip, with politicians, movie stars and Eurotrash all crossing the pages to good effect. Does anyone have a bad Robert Mitchum story? Marianne Faithfull had a gem in her autobiography and Malachy tops it here. And then there is the author’s seemingly infallible memory for witticisms overheard, such as brother Frank’s observation that the leadership of the Ancient Order of Hibernians is composed of the “cream of Irish mediocrity,” or Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s view that there’s not much point in being Irish if you don’t realize that the world is eventually going to break your heart.

The book does end on an emotional note – a wretched reunion and confrontation with the alcoholic father who’d abandoned the McCourt family decades earlier – but even this is handled with a jaded humor that will make most readers feel better about whatever dysfunction exists in their own families.

Comparisons with “Angela’s Ashes” will of course be as inevitable as they are misguided. One might as well attempt to compare a film like “Schindler’s List” with “Howard Stern’s Private Parts.”

Malachy McCourt’s “A Monk Swimming” stands quite well on its own, and can be enjoyed even by those who haven’t read brother Frank’s book. If there is anyone who hasn’t, that is.

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