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'Tis Time

Published Sep. 19, 1999|Updated Sep. 30, 2005

The release of 'Tis, the eagerly-awaited sequel to Angela's Ashes, continues the stories of familiar characters and puts the spotlight on writers from Ireland.

'TIS: A MEMOIR

By Frank McCourt

Scribner, $26

Like the 19th century readers who rushed down to the New York docks to meet the ship carrying the latest installment of Charles Dickens' Little Nell ("Is Little Nell still alive?" they shouted to the sailors on the deck), I, too, have been anxious to know the fates of characters I had come to know only through the pages of a book. What had become of the characters in the 1996 bestseller Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's gut-wrenching account of his impoverished childhood in Ireland?

What had become of Frank's mother Angela, his brothers Malachy, Michael and Alphie, and yes, even his good-for-nearly-nothing father? At times I had recoiled from them, at times I had wanted to put my arms around them; all that intimacy, good and bad, had made me long to hear the rest of their stories. Especially Frank's. What became of that little boy who had endured the stench of poverty with such grace and good humor, when he finally reached his dreamland, America?

'Tis the subject of 'Tis _ and, I am happy to report, it was well worth the wait.

'Tis is not the heartfelt read that Angela's Ashes was. Even a consummate storyteller such as McCourt wasn't able to bend the arc of his life as a young man in America into as neat a narrative structure as he did with his childhood memories. But I actually enjoyed 'Tis more for its messiness, even its bitterness. McCourt's ultimately humane (and always deliciously wry) look at life's struggles won me over _ despite his occasional blind spots.

Angela's Ashes was the hopeful story of a child, told with the startling innocence of a child, which gave the story its remarkable lack of sentimentality and judgment. 'Tis is the more hard-bitten story of a young man who is not so forgiving of what the world throws at him. I suspect that many of us can relate more to McCourt's stories of nosy landlords, sadistic army corporals and uncooperative members of the opposite sex.

This time we meet up with Frank on the decks of the MS Irish Oak as the freighter is steaming toward America. It is October, 1949; Frank is 19, ready to put his misery behind him. After a train trip from Albany with a Catholic priest who befriended him on the ship, he arrives in New York City, has his first hamburger and is poised to get his first job.

As his mother Angela would say when a dream comes true, "That's your dream out now."

His dream, however, soon turns nightmarish. That plump little Irish priest tries to molest him, and his first job (sweeping the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel around smug F. Scott Fitzgerald clones plying their perfectly coiffed dates with drinks) is a humiliation. And when he tries to score in an Irish bar, the woman laughs in his face: "I mean, did you look in the mirror lately?"

McCourt has brought the baggage of his poverty with him to America: eyes reddened by infection and encrusted with yellow ooze, bad teeth, no high school diploma and a weakness for alcohol. His brogue immediately sets him apart, but it also opens doors as other Irish in America seek to take care of their own. In a cultural lesson that seems to be woven into the American fabric, he is told over and over again to "stick with your own kind."

"Why is it the minute I open my mouth the whole world is telling me they're Irish and we should all have a drink?" gripes McCourt, who says he doesn't give "a fiddler's fart" where someone's mother and father came from in Ireland. "It's not enough to be American. You always have to be something else, Irish-American, German-American, and you'd wonder how they'd get along if someone hadn't invented the hyphen."

Technically, of course, McCourt isn't really an immigrant. He was born in Brooklyn but returned shortly after to Limerick when his Irish parents couldn't find work here. Things back in Ireland, as we know from Angela's Ashes, went from bad to worse: Employment wasn't any better there, and what little money came the family's way was drunk up by Frank's father. That father, who eventually went to England and abandoned his family, haunts this memoir, and Frank's longing for a father figure provides its most memorable passage.

The setting is a pier near the shipyards where Frank is working while getting his college degree at NYU (which has overlooked his lack of a high school diploma). It is the mid-'50s. Frank is sharing a hero sandwich with a worker named Horace, who has a son in college and a wife who cleans offices. "I often think he's the father I'd like to have even if he's black and I'm white," McCourt writes. "If ever I said that to anyone at the warehouse I'd be laughed off the platform."

Earlier Horace had been careful not to let the other workers see them walking together since "They'd laugh and ask Horace when he knew my mother." Now the two of them are passing a bottle of Rheingold back and forth. As Horace offers Frank another chunk of his sandwich, telling him he could use a few pounds on his bones, Frank is overcome with emotion and begins to weep. Horace puts his arms around Frank "'as if I were his own son, the two of us black or white or nothing, and it doesn't matter because there's nothing to do but put the sandwich where a seagull swoops in and gobbles it and we laugh, Horace and I . . . " Later when they return, walking together, "the men on the platform say nothing about him and my mother because it's hard to hurt people already laughing and beyond you."

Frank's real father does get to America _ one last try to reconcile with Angela and his four sons who have all settled in New York. He arrives drunk. Some things never change.

But by the end of 'Tis, things have changed dramatically for the little boy from the slums of Limerick. From toilet scrubber at the Biltmore in the late '40s to creative writing teacher at one of New York's best public schools in the early '70s, he has become a man, with a daughter, a college degree and, alas, some of the same vices as the father who brought him so much misery.

Like the senior McCourt, Frank also walks out on his wife, the blonde Episcopalian whom he dreams about obsessively in college and then leaves waiting many a night while he stays out drinking at the pub (he even gets drunk on his wedding night). His comments about his failed marriage ("slum-reared Irish Catholics have nothing in common with nice girls from New England") are uncharacteristically shallow, a shockingly unreflective acceptance of the "stick with your own" advice he so admirably mocks throughout 'Tis.

But who among us cannot see the faults of our parents easier than we can see our own? McCourt's memoir actually is all the more human for this peculiar lack of reflection from an author that has seemed so uncannily perceptive in so many other areas. It reminds us once again that poverty doesn't necessarily ennoble people. We can only hope that the scars are few for those fortunate enough to survive it as successfully as Frank McCourt.

Last week McCourt's impish face peered out from the cover of the New York Times Magazine. This fall Angela's Ashes is due out as a movie. Angela, whose sons in the summer of '85 sprinkled her ashes over the graves of her kinfolk in Limerick, would have been proud.

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