Reading Frank McCourt

Way too long ago, I heard a great interview with Frank McCourt which made me want to read Teacher Man. He told how he noticed that the most creative writing he was getting out of his students were their excuses. So he assigned them to write excuses for great historical figures. I guess I’m not as creative as a surly high-school student, because I eventually realized I had no excuse to keep putting off reading his books, and even less excuse for why it’s taken me so long to tell you about my reactions.

Angela’s Ashes gives you fair warning on the first page.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable child is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Everything that happens to him is so awful, I wondered how it was keeping me up past midnight reading it. I think it’s because Frank at once clever and ignorant, you hold out hope for him and despair of his ever escaping (though you know he will). In the midst of horror there is humor and sweetness, only to be slapped down, again and again.

In general the people in general in the book are portrayed as prejudiced, mean-hearted penny pinchers, cruel and violent. Every now and then, there is someone who takes the suffering of others seriously. Like the one Dominican priest who feels sorry for the poor and asks Frank to pray for him. Or the teacher who, when his recommendation of the young Frank is ignored, decries the Irish for imposing the class system that the English brought. There is so much detail in his early childhood, I was starting to wonder, How can he remember all this stuff?

Then I read Teacher Man. As a teacher, McCourt finally has some sympathy for the people around him, in particular the kids. He tells very funny stories about them, and about telling his own stories to them. The kids connected to his hardships because life was pretty tough for them, too. As he uses stories of his childhood to get their attention, you realize how Angela’s Ashes became so detailed: he’s been telling those stories for 30 years. That may also be why there are no quotation marks. I think that’s his way of saying that the conversations in his book are reconstructed from memory. There’s no way to tell whether they are exactly what people said to one another.

There’s also a chapter that basically collects his failures, although he doesn’t exactly express his regrets or ask forgiveness. The whole middle of the book tells how he pissed away two years pretending to write a doctoral thesis at Trinity College in Dublin. This has a “See I am so honest, I will tell you about my failures” flavor to it that doesn’t quite rescue this unpleasant interlude.

It all makes for some great stories. I loved the excuses.  I loved his adventures taking a class full of rowdy girls to a movie (Cold Turkey) and a play (Hamlet). The way the girls latched onto the murder story is a great reminder that everyone gets Hamlet, even prisoners.

When he gets a position teaching creative writing at Stuyvesant, he finally comes into his own, even if some of the parents and students thought he was taking “do whatever you want” a little too far. When he had them reading and singing recipes, they have fun, but one of the students said, Mr. McCourt, sometimes you’re a little weird.

Maybe so, but you have to take those kind of chances to be a great storyteller.

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