November 15-22, 2006

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Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt.

Writer Man

Frank McCourt talks about the literary journey that began with 'Angela's Ashes'

By Laura Mattingly

Frank McCourt's first book, Angela's Ashes, both engrossed and delighted the nation, a memoir that reads like the grittiest of fairy tales. McCourt tells the story of his childhood in the most vivid and troubling detail, a boy dragged through the coals of poverty, his father's alcoholism, his mother's inability to handle their situation, the hunger and sickness of life in Limerick. Despite a sharp humor, which, overlaying the difficult subject matter reads like a miracle, the trouble of McCourt's early life follows him to America, into adulthood, into his second memoir, 'Tis, then into his career, and into his most recent work, Teacher Man.

Long after McCourt's return to the United States as a young adult (since his departure at 4 years old), through college, his service in the U.S. Army, and his experience as a "tough little mick" on the loading docks of the Hudson river, his accent, his "brooding hangdog look," and his bad teeth--his Irishness--left him feeling alienated and apart.

In Teacher Man comes the resolution of what the first two books gave the impression of as two irreconcilable lives and identities.

As a teacher in the New York City public school system's vocational high schools, McCourt learns the only way to communicate with the tough, working-class American students is through honesty and transparency. He has to get them to trust him and he has to learn to trust them. So he tells them stories.

"My life saved my life," he writes.

Through Teacher Man, McCourt makes clear how a high school teacher could have published his first book at age 66 and have it become an immediate and critically acclaimed bestseller. We learn how he entertained quite possibly the most difficult audience, classrooms full of aggressively uninterested high school students, using the stories of his life, for a career spanning 30 years. McCourt essentially made a life out of memoir.

"I'm 27 years old, a new teacher, dipping into my past to satisfy these American teenagers, to keep them quiet and in their seats. I never thought my life would be so useful. Why would anyone want to know about my miserable life? Then I realize this is what my father did when he told us stories by the fire," McCourt writes in Teacher Man.

McCourt remembers his father telling him about traveling storytellers in Ireland, called seanachies, who passed on ancient Irish history and legend and in return were welcomed with a meal or a place to rest for the night.

McCourt integrated his own stories into the classroom not necessarily intending to preserve cultural memory, or to teach the snotty, spoiled American teenagers what it's like to suffer. As he describes it, he told the stories more out of necessity.

In Teacher Man, McCourt explains that "teenagers" didn't exist in Limerick during the years of his upbringing, that children went immediately from a difficult childhood into the workplace, with the responsibilities of adulthood, and then parenthood. He associates the state of adolescence with a culture of prosperity. And for this reason, the obstacle of relating with his students was a significant one.

For me they were creatures from another planet," McCourt tells Metro. "I didn't know anything about them. And they were rough, they weren't like nice teenagers in some suburban movie about the suburbs, they were tough kids in a vocational high school. And they were plumbers and electricians and auto mechanics who did not want to be in an English class or a history class, or anything like that, those other classes called art appreciation, they hated all that. They just wanted to go back to the shop and be active with their hands."

Telling stories was the only way McCourt could communicate with them at all. And where up until this point, in his work on the docks and through the process of getting his teaching license and finding a teaching position, his accent had been an obstacle, once in the classroom his accent was novel enough to give him an advantage. The Irish identity that had caused him so much trouble in America, that many of his Irish friends strove to abandon, was able to flourish in the context of the classroom. And it saved him.

"They were interested in the fact that I had a different kind of accent. So that meant I wasn't just another ordinary teacher. So they started asking me, partly out of curiosity and partly because they wanted to cut me off at the pass, stop me from talking about vocabulary or grammar or something like that. So it became a joke. And they'd start saying, 'So Mr. McCourt, what kind of sports you like playing,' and I'd say, 'We're talking about grammar here. And I know what you're up to,' and then we'd all laugh. And I'd tell them something about my background and I'd tell them about school, and I'd tell them about how teachers in Ireland beat the shit out of us because we didn't know the structure of an Irish sentence, that kind of thing. So I was able to bring it back to the subject, always very clever. I was so clever."

Keeping communication open and humor alive in the classroom enabled him to form a relationship with his students, but also allowed him to manage the stress of overcrowded classrooms full of students destined for lives as plumbers, mechanics and secretaries, who had no use or interest for poetry, grammar lessons or the structure of an essay.

"It's very positive," he notes. "It helps the teacher survive."

The humor sustained in McCourt's writing, and its contrast with the stark subject matter of his early life, is what many readers fell in love with reading Angela's Ashes. And for McCourt, the connection between humor and suffering makes perfect sense.

"Well I suppose you can find humor everywhere, but you find it particularly in institutions, like prisons, the army, hospitals, where things are so extreme you have to have a sense of humor," McCourt tells Metro. "The same thing applies to living and growing up in poverty as well--you have to have a sense of humor; if you grow all gloomy, you're dead. I even heard there was humor in concentrations camps, that the inmates in concentration camps would make fun of the guards and so on and even the condition, and joke about their clothes or their lack of clothes, and that kept them going till the minute they died. Kept us going too . . . You have to have it, otherwise you're suicidal. I know there are people who get through life with no humor whatsoever, but I don't know how they do it."

Initially McCourt's reliance on his stories for teaching was accompanied by acute doubt and self-criticism.

A passage in Teacher Man chronicles his discomfort. "I argue with myself, You're telling stories and you're supposed to be teaching. / I am teaching. Storytelling is teaching. / Storytelling is a waste of time. / I can't help it. I'm not good at lecturing. / You're a fraud. You're cheating our children. / They don't think so. / The poor kids don't know. / I'm a teacher in an American school telling stories of my school days in Ireland. It's a routine that softens them up in the unlikely event I might teach something solid from the curriculum."

McCourt eventually took ownership of his unique teaching style, his chronic memoirism, though he was never quite sure about the extent of its effectiveness. Still, he dismisses his own criticism for being possibly too self-indulgent by considering the use of his own life history as his right, because he lived it.

"There was my childhood, there was a transitional period when I came and went to school and worked and then became a teacher. There are stages of my life, and I look back and I use them. If you reach a certain age that I have, if you pass 65 you're lucky, or 70. Then if you have any desire to write or any skill, you use your past. That's all I do now, I look back and I exploit my past. That's what it's there for. That's why I was allowed to live this long. I mean I wouldn't want to just sit around, lookin' at the wall, or thinkin' about my ailments, or going out to the pharmacy to get the latest drug for the latest disease," says McCourt.

He uses the word "exploit" in discussing the way he uses his past in the classroom and in his books. And despite its negative connotation, he defends that description.

"That's what I do. Exploit, use it, manipulate it, whatever it is. Yeah, I exploit it, I twist the tone, and do whatever I want with it. It's mine."

Though all three of McCourt's memoirs seem to stack experience upon experience--shaped by awareness of cultural identity, degrees of assimilation, the advantages and disadvantages of feeling outside mainstream America--McCourt does not look at his own identity, of being Irish or being American, as a conscious choice.

"I never reflected on it that way. When I came to America I became more Irish than what I was in Ireland. Because people said, 'Oh, you're Irish,' and then I became aware of being Irish. Then you get older, as I have. And now I'm more and more interested in America and American history. So, I don't worry too much about identity like that. Sometimes people tell you, 'Do you think you're Irish or you think you're American,' and I just say, 'I'm a New Yorker. That's all.'"

And as for his writing style, McCourt talks about that with the same lack of self-awareness. His habit of leaping freely back and forth in time with little need for belabored transitions, the fluid manor in which he integrates various voices seamlessly into the narrative with the skill and liveliness of a crafty playwright ... McCourt claims not to have premeditated a thing. His first and most successful memoir, Angela's Ashes, had not even been intended for publication.

"I don't know, who knows what my style is," McCourt laughs heartily, almost exasperated at the thought of characterizing his writing. "It reflects temperament, and I don't think I'm capable of anything but simplicity. I'd like to write very elaborate and complicated sentences like William Faulkner, or Marcel Proust or people like that, but I'm not capable of it. Besides, as a teacher I was always preaching simplicity and clarity and being natural. In Ireland we were discouraged from being natural when we were writing. They threatened us if we wrote simple colloquial sentences. We had to write like Victorians, which is very artificial. So after all those years standing up to yak yak yak, talk talk talk, in the classroom, I think that's what came out of the pen."

Other Recent Memoirs of Note

Reeling Through Hollywood By Dan Bessie (Blue Lupine Press; 353 pages; $22.95 paper).
Life happens at a different speed to people who don't plan it out in advance. Ex-Santa Cruzan Dan Bessie proves that with his CV: merchant seaman, hydraulic valve tester, counselor at YMCA camp, longshoreman, smutty poster illustrator, sign painter, bowling alley pin monkey, and finally $36.45-a-week hired hand under William Hanna and Joseph Barbera at MGM. Then came Bessie's longest gig: pre-John Pierson indie filmmaker. He directed the locally filmed Hard Travellin', based on his father Alvah Bessie's novel, Bread and a Stone. Unlike his blacklisted father, Dan is willing to name names: getting inappropriate attention from Will "Granpa Walton" Geer, fetching some cancer-soothing whiskey for Robert Ryan during the making of Executive Action; dating Donna Michelle, "first Playmate in Space" (the crew of Gemini X smuggled her foldout aboard); directing former Yellow Brick Road-warrior Ray Bolger and loafing with Jane Fonda (whose ex, Ted Turner, currently owns Hard Travellin'). If that wasn't enough, Bessie helped assemble the earliest Marvel cartoons for TV. Rueful and consistently amusing as it is, this memoir is more evidence that financial success is just plain vulgar compared to the pricelessness of a wanderer's career. -Richard von Busack

Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir By Robert Hughes (Knopf; 395 pages; $27.95 cloth).
Robert Hughes, the longtime Time magazine art critic and author (The Fatal Shore) charts the first half of his life in this stylish, if occasionally dyspeptic, memoir. The book proceeds from his Catholic boyhood in the Antipodes to his intellectual flowering in England, Italy and Spain to his arrival in New York and hiring, in 1970, by the Luce empire (about whose editing and prose style he tosses off several trenchant quips). Much of this journey is defined by Hughes' gritty relationship to Australia, especially its ingrained provincialism, against which he rails ceaselessly. This contentiousness has earned him plenty of enemies, and it is easy to see why. The remarkable opening chapter relates Hughes' side of a 1999 auto accident that left him severely injured but also at the mercy of the courts and the media. Even when he comes across as sympathetic, he can't help himself; "I shot myself in the already too-much-violated foot," he writes about an off-the-cuff remark that the tabloids seized on to accuse him of snobbery and elitism. Hughes freely admits to the latter charge, especially since it informs his art criticism: "I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness." The book offers a feast of particulate memories that expand to hard-won universalisms: on the day as a boy when he caught a large bonito in Sydney Bay, "its noble, fusiform little corpse ... filled me with respect and with what I now realize was a first stirring of desire for the Ideal." Although this is not a work of criticism, Hughes writes movingly about his encounter with Italian religious sculptures and frescos: "I was beginning, at last, to derive from art, from architecture, and even from the beauty of organized landscape, a sense of transcendence that organized religion had offered me--but that I had never received." Hughes also deals out polished anecdotes (and a few brickbats) with the ease of a card shark. At one of his first Australian newspapers, the editor "burst into ... the small staff room. 'I've just fired the art critic,' he announced. 'Anyone here know anything about art?' Nobody spoke up. [His] gaze settled on me. 'You're the cartoonist,' he snapped. 'You ought to know something about art. Good. Well, now you're the fucking art critic.' He strode out the door, leaving me to contemplate my fate." Luckily for us, that fate led to such classics as The Shock of the New, Goya and, now, this marvelous memoir. -Michael S. Gant

Cancer Vixen By Marisa Acocella Marchetto (Knopf; 222 pages; $22).
This proud "fashionista's" graphic-novel memoir about her bout with the big C doesn't have the punch of Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's ground-breaking Our Cancer Year. But it uses the same methods--such as Marchetto's linking up the Sept. 11 attack to her own body's attack on her, even as Pekar cross-cut his own lymphoma case with the Middle East crisis of 1991. More intensely depicted than Al Qaeda's attack is the author's struggle against the terrorists in her own life: predatory starveling fashion models hitting on her semifamous fiance. Maybe it's just evidence of what strides medicine has made in a decade and a half that Marchetto's lumpectomy, plus what's called "light chemo," isn't nearly as much a horror story as Pekar's ordeal. This lady fighting for her life is surrounded by tough allies, including her pushy but loyal "(s)mother," a militia of gal-pals and spiritual advisers who are experts in the kabalah (oy gevalt). Radiation therapy isn't enough to quell Marchetto's urge to accessorize. The drawings are cute and sassy, as befitting a strip that ran in Glamour, but the surface is every bit as glossy as the text of that mag. -Richard von Busack

American Splendor By Harvey Pekar (Vertigo; $2.99)
Harvey Pekar moves to DC Comics; expect that Batman vs. Pekar match we comics geeks have been waiting for. In this comic, the Sage of Cleveland answers the question "What Happened to Your Parents?" (Alzheimer's, both of them); he observes a double case of futility at the airport in "Delicacy"; and accidentally starts an incident in a read-between-the-lines story of labor trouble in "Northwest Airlines Goes Socialist." In "The Day's Highlights," newer Pekar collaborator artist Dean Haspiel gives an aging grouch a well-deserved graphic makeover, bringing speed, drama and humor to this story of a worrywart matching wits with his teenage daughter, two straying cats and the paymaster at The New York Times. -Richard von Busack

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