(Scribner)Frank McCourt hit the jackpot several years ago with his early memoirs, Angela's Ashes. It was a Gaelic mix of Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, with some Joyce Cary thrown in. It was funny and bitterly sad --- a We grew up in Ireland with a drunken father and a persistent mother and a mountain of brothers and sisters and even though we were dying of starvation with fleas let me tell you some very funny things that happened to us type of tale.
'Tis is a follow-up, and it's been panned by critics for not being up to the first which may well be true but still, he's the kind of writer who can produce bitterly funny stuff, apparently at the drop of a hat, telling you about his life-long eye disease, or how the priest tried to get in his pants in the hotel, or what it was like to work as a longshoreman, and go to school, send checks to his mother, and listen to people commenting on his brogue, and try to get laid all at the same time.
Some writers are masters of the page, some of the chapter, and some --- like Faulkner and Joyce --- of the single sentence. McCourt is the master of the breathless paragraph. For example, he is eternally having to deal with people in New York who hear his accent and --- while they are screwing him out of something --- tell him about their mother, or father, or whole family, coming from Ireland. This is McCourt trying to get a loan:
The man at the Beneficial Finance says, Do I detect a brogue? He tells me where his mother and father came from in Ireland and how he plans to visit himself though that'd be hard with six kids, ha ha. His mother comes from a family of nineteen. Can you believe that? Nineteen kids. Of course seven died but what the hell. That's how it was in the old days back in the Old Country. They had kids like rabbits.
Or this from his black friend Horace who works with him on the docks and when he tells Horace that he's thinking of quitting school and going off and working on an assembly line in Detroit,
Horace tells me I should thank God I'm white, a young white man with the GI Bill and good health. Maybe a little trouble with the eyes but still, better in this country to be white with bad eyes than black with good eyes. If his son ever told him he wanted to quit school to stand on an assembly line sticking cigarette lighters into cars he'd go up to Canada and break his head.
If there is a theme to 'Tis, 'tis one of shame. McCourt is ashamed of his brogue or rather he wishes he could open his mouth without everyone putting him in an Irish pigeonhole. He's ashamed of his eyes that are red and suppurate, ashamed that he doesn't know Camus and Sartre from nothing, ashamed that he gets mad at his mother for eating too much, ashamed that he grew up poor, ashamed that he can't control the class he teaches at vocational school in Staten Island:
The boys tell me I don't have to take attendance every day but once I start I can't stop. Most are Italian and taking attendance is light opera: Adinjolfi, Buscaglia, Cacciamani, DiFazio, Esposito, Gagliardo, Miceli...I'm supposed to lead the class in reciting the Pledge to Allegiance and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." I barely know them but that doesn't matter. The boys stand, place their hands on their hearts and recite their own version of the Pledge, I pledge allegiance to the flag of Staten Island, and to one night stands, one girl under me, invisible to all, with love and kisses for only me.
I've lived with McCourt these past three days, for he is the kind of writer that not only takes us into his apartment and his world but his heart too --- even goes out drinking with us. It all reminds me of the year (see, he got me started) I fell down in Skibberean and broke my rib and had to stay in an inn over by the bay for a couple of weeks and I'd go down to the pub at night and the fishermen would start in at eight or so, drinking their Guinness, and for hours they would lay out that fireworks of words, the English language given wings, and I would sit there saying nothing and thinking my god, if I could just get this stuff down I could put a play on Broadway that would knock 'em dead.
Well, McCourt has done it --- but his play has been rendered in prose, and it's a kick and a laugh and one doesn't want to put it down, at least not until he begins to run out of steam and Guinness Stout around Chapter 40, where he starts ragging on his poor old Irish Mum for eating too much and being alone in New York and never calling him. At that point 'Tis turns into the old Irish Nag, but, in the end --- who cares? --- for the first half of his tale, a Portrait of the Young Artist in New York, is a joy because this guy came out of the cradle writhing words together like a master. He's a reporter with an ear, the exacting ear for Irish song-in-words.
There are bonuses too. McCourt includes here the first piece of creative writing he ever did when he got to the United States, and if you and I were teachers we'd take one look at this guy's story and tell him he should drop everything and write for a living --- which is exactly what he's done:
When I was growing up in Limerick my mother had to go to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to see if she could get a bed for me and my brothers, Malachy, Michael, and Alphie who was barely walking. The man at the St. Vincent de Paul said he could give her a docket to go down to the Irishtown to a place that sold secondhand beds. My mother asked him couldn't we get a new bed because you never know what you're getting with an old one. There could be all kinds of diseases.
The man said beggars can't be choosers and my mother shouldn't be so particular.
But she wouldn't give up. She asked if it was possible at least to find out if anyone had died in the bed. Surely that wasn't asking too much. She wouldn't want to be lying in her own bed at night thinking about her four small sons sleeping on a mattress that someone had died on, maybe some that had a fever or consumption.
The St Vincent de Paul man said, Missus, if you don't want this bed give me back the docket and I'll give it to someone that's not so particular.
Mam said, Ah, no, and she came home to get Alphie's pram so that we could carry the mattress, the spring and the bedstead. The man in the shop in the Irishtown wanted her to take a mattress with hair sticking out and spots and stains all over but my mother said she wouldn't let a cow sleep on a bed like that, didn't the man have another mattress over there in the corner? The man grumbled and said, All right, all right. Bejesus, the charity cases is gettin' very particular these days, and he stayed behind his counter watching us drag the mattress outside.
We had to push the pram up and down the streets of Limerick three times for the mattress and the different parts of the iron bedstead, the head, the end, the supports, and the spring. My mother said she was ashamed of her life and wished she could do this at night. The man said he was sorry for her troubles but he closed at six sharp and wouldn't stay open if the Holy Family came for a bed.
It was hard pushing the pram because it had one bockety wheel that wanted to go its own way and it was harder still with Alphie buried under the mattress screaming for his mother.
My father was there to drag the mattress upstairs and he helped us put the spring and the bedstead together. Of course he wouldn't help us push the pram two miles from the Irishtown because he'd be ashamed of the spectacle. He was from the North of Ireland and they must have a different way of bringing home the bed.
We had old overcoats to put on the bed because the St. Vincent de Paul Society wouldn't give us a docket for the sheets and blankets. My mother lit the fire and when we sat around it drinking tea she said at least we're all off the floor and isn't God good.
It's a story but if you look at it closely, it's really a play, the same kind of dialogue that you and I have heard at between two old sods at the Tam O' Shanter, the kind of dialogue that makes us want to drop our drab friends in Connecticut and move to Limerick, living above the pub where we'll spend nights listening to druid magic drunken words. In "The Bed," in 500 or so words, you and I have been presented with an elegant sketch of McCourt's mother, his father, and even the cranky old men that hand out beds for the poor. If Henry James ever had written about the benighted, he would need a whole book to tell us what McCourt has managed to shrink-wrap into nine paragraphs.--- T. S. O'Toole