FRANK MCCOURT IS NOT WITHOUT sin. But no one could confess with more charm. In the course of defending the accuracy of his memoir, ""Angela's Ashes,'' McCourt admits that he erred at least once, a mistake he discovered last October when he traveled back to Limerick, the Irish city where his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of growing up poor is set. He was autographing books in a bookstore when a man approached and introduced himself as Willie Harrell, one of the boys that little Frankie McCourt grew up with. ""Weak and leaning on a stick and looking like he was 100 years old,'' Harrell congratulated McCourt on a fine job of writing. Then he leaned across the table and said, ""In your book you give me a sister, and Frankie, I had no sister.'' McCourt shakes his head. ""This was true. Somehow or other, I invented a sister for him who had none. But we chatted awhile, and finally Willie says, "Frankie, I'd love a copy of your book. But I'm on the pension these days, and I was wondering, could you see letting me have a copy?' '' And McCourt, still embarrassed, says of course he can. ""That's fine, then,'' Willie says, ""you let me have this book, Frankie, and we'll be forgetting about the sister.''
Since then, this 67-year-old former schoolteacher has done very little apologizing for the book that has become the publishing event of the decade. Scribner has printed more than 1.3 million copies. It's been on The New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year; on July 13 it jumped back to No. 1 for the fifth time, and is there still. It won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. American booksellers named it their favorite book of 1997.
Reduced to its essentials, ""Angela's Ashes'' looks like an encyclopedia of Irish clichE--the alcoholic pa, the long-suffering ma, the wee lads without a crust between 'em. A natural storyteller and wit, McCourt sidesteps sentimentality with a litany of hardship that would make a cynic flinch. ""My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born,'' his book begins. By the time the family moved back to Ireland in 1934, 4-year-old Frank had gained three brothers and lost a sister. Two more brothers would be born, and two would die. The father drank his paycheck and eventually wandered off for good during World War II. The mother, the Angela of the title, begged for charity and lived off the mingy help of relatives, at one point sleeping with a cousin so that her children might have a place to live. People who haven't read the book always ask, ""Isn't it awfully depressing?'' Yes, but it's also awfully funny. The genius of the book is that the tears and laughter are rarely separated by so much as a comma.
The success this book is having isn't supposed to happen in modern publishing, a world where ""literary'' and ""best seller'' are never used in the same sentence. U.S. trade-book sales have been off as much as 12 percent this year. This summer HarperCollins, one of the nation's largest publishers, lopped more than 100 titles off its trade list and then announced that it would take a $270 million charge against earnings this fiscal year. Meanwhile, independent booksellers--the very people publishers count on to hand-sell literary work like McCourt's--continued to lose market share, while chain stores and book clubs kept getting fat. ""If you have only a few copies of a book in a huge store, none of the help knows what it is,'' says one publicity director. ""You need Barnes & Noble to take 50,000 copies so the book will be in evidence.'' That's gloomy news for a book like ""Angela's Ashes,'' which had a first printing of 27,000--a healthy first printing for an unknown author. But as Patricia Eisemann, publicity director at Scribner, puts it, ""The rules only apply when the rules apply, and in Frank's case, none of the rules apply.''
For example, he got very little television exposure at first--the ""Today'' show didn't book him until he won the Pulitzer Prize, and he's never been on ""Oprah''--but that didn't matter. Old-fashioned bookselling--excitement inside the publishing house, enthusiastic booksellers and lots of good reviews--sent McCourt onto the best-seller list. Once that happened, the chains started to pay attention. That's when sales hit warp speed.
""One of the great things about the chain stores is that you have very good bookstores in communities that really never had bookstores,'' observes Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic. ""So you have the ability every once in a while--with David Guterson, with Carol Shields, with Annie Proulx--to sell huge numbers of a serious book. Seven to 10 years ago, you could never have conceived of selling 2.5 million copies of "Snow Falling on Cedars' in trade paperback; 300,000 would have been a giant number.''
SELF-EFFACING TO A fault, McCourt claims not to understand why his book is so popular. ""I thought it might appeal to wom- en who had been through childbirth and some adversity,'' he says dryly. But the fact is, McCourt himself is the not-so-secret ingredient in the book's success. He's a publicist's dream: a first-rate writer with stage presence. He knows just how much personal lore to confide in an interview --he's had a couple of bad marriages, he's a lapsed Roman Catholic, he can take a drink without any problem--but he's never embarrassingly indiscreet. Throw in a slight Irish brogue, offset it with a sardonic sense of his own heritage--""A well-placed bomb at the New York St. Patrick's Day parade would wipe out the cream of Irish mediocrity''--and you can see why Scribner's Eisemann says, ""Frank and "Angela's Ashes' are a majestic combination: a book that talks and an author who talks.''
His schedule--bookstore signings, readings, interviews--is a half-inch thick, and he's booked through April 1998. McCourt's only grumble is that he has no time to write, but he grumbles with a grin. With seven-figure deals for paperback rights, movie rights and the rights to his next book (an ""Angela'' sequel), he's bought plusher digs in Manhattan and daydreams of buying a place in Ireland. With a horse on it. Meanwhile, he's seeing the world at his publishers' expense.
This summer he addressed the graduating class of Stuyvesant High School, where he taught for 18 years until he retired in 1987. He put in a good-natured appearance as himself on the daytime soap opera ""One Life to Live''--his brother, the actor Malachy McCourt, plays a freelance anarchist on the show. Esquire has just paid him $1,000 to begin a story that will be completed a sentence at a time by other writers. And he had his first taste of raw celebrity in a New York restaurant when a woman swooped down and demanded his autograph. ""I don't know who you are,'' she said, ""but I know you're somebody.''
In July he was back in Ireland, where his book is a No. 1 best seller, signing books and giving readings. Throughout the week, from Dublin to Belfast to Sligo to Galway, store after store, he was unflappable, agreeably chatting, signing, answering questions from reporters, fans and the merely curious. But the fifth stop was Limerick, his hometown, and the very fount of memory. And it made him uneasy. Driving in that morning, he'd said, ""It's Limerick you worry about. Limerick is where the experts are.''
Sure enough, at O'Mahony's bookstore, there was Billy Campbell, little Frankie's boyhood friend all grown up and wearing an L.A. Dodgers cap and looking bored when asked if McCourt got it right in his book. ""Accurate enough,'' he murmurs at first. Then, as if he's afraid he's sounded stingy, he says, ""Frankie has the gift. He brought it all back. There's a lot in there we hadn't remembered.'' Before he can go on, a man comes up, throws a yellowed photograph on the table and says, ""Do you know what that is?'' McCourt says of course, it's the picture of his class at Leamy's National School, the picture in the front of his book. ""Which one am I?'' the man demands to know. McCourt can't say. This provokes a tirade. ""You've insulted the fair name of Ireland, you've besmirched the fair name of Limerick, and you've insulted your poor dead mother. Here's what I think of your book.'' Thereupon he tore his copy in two.
McCourt's voice takes on a hard edge when he starts to address the crowd a few minutes later. ""I can do no more than tell the truth,'' he begins. ""People who think I have insulted Ireland or Limerick or my family HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK!'' An ovation drowns out whatever he says next. Then he begins to read, and the rancor evaporates from his voice.
""When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.'' As always, this line gets a big laugh, but the mood of this reading is different from all the others. The bleak passages that McCourt picks to read far outnumber the funny stories, beginning with the ingredients of his childhood--""the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters.'' He stops and tells of going through his mother's things after she died. ""She kept a sort of diary, and the very first thing she wrote in there was "I must have been the most unfortunate creature God ever made'.'' Hearing this--and maybe it's hearing this in Limerick--you realize that for McCourt, ""Angela's Ashes,'' for all its art, is first and last the marrow of his life and the life of his family.
McCourt has a child's eyes, merry and quizzical, and when he's showing a stranger around Limerick, it's the city of half a century ago that he sees. ""There were no stoplights in Limerick when I was boy,'' he recalls. ""People drove cattle and sheep down the street.'' On Barrack Hill, where much of ""Angela's Ashes'' takes place, the slums were razed long ago, but the humiliating memories of poverty and a censorious middle class are not so easily erased. ""The frown. Everything then was a frown. All these people had was tremendous dignity, but I don't know how my generation survived. Today I saw [one of the boys from the book]. He told me that a day doesn't go by that he doesn't think of suicide.''
People are always asking, how does he remember so much? And how much is an Irish storyteller's embroidery? The earliest memory in his book takes place when he's 3--64 years ago. ""We had nothing, no television, no radio, nothing to get in the way,'' McCourt replies. ""We read by the street light at the top of the lane, and we acted out the stories. Malachy and I would do P. G. Wodehouse, still do. But otherwise there was no secondhand material. You saw the various habits and conditions of your neighbors. The uncluttered life is the key to a good memory.
""When I came to America, all I had was this story,'' McCourt says. ""It took me two years and all my life to write it.'' He took a stab at a fictional version in the '60s but stuck it in a drawer. He had arrived in America at 19 in 1949 and worked at a variety of jobs, from hotel porter to dockworker. After the Korean War, he used the GI Bill to put himself through New York University, and then he began to teach. He started out at vocational schools and then, for 18 years, taught English at prestigious Stuyvesant High, where he is still a legend among the alumni. ""When we were in 12th grade,'' recalls Maura Whalen, who studied with him in the '70s, ""we started calling him Frank. He said this was undignified and we weren't to do it. We could call him Fra, he said, and when we graduated we could call him the full Frank.''
Whalen remembers McCourt's funny stories about his past, ""but not learning about the depths of the hardship and the sadness.'' Nor does Jack Deacy, deputy press secretary to the mayor of New York, who first hung out with McCourt in the '60s at the Lion's Head bar in Greenwich Village. By then, all four McCourt boys and their mother had been living in New York, and it was Malachy, according to Deacy, whom people thought of when they thought of a McCourt. Malachy was the man who started New York's first singles bar, the raconteur famous for his monologues on Jack Paar's show and, everyone assumed, the most important member of the duo when he and Frank put together their cabaret revue, ""A Couple of Blaguards,'' a series of autobiographical comic sketches they performed in New York, Chicago and San Francisco in the '80s. Malachy, who is writing his own memoir, ""A Monk Swimming,'' smiles wistfully when he says, ""Frank was always the brother of Malachy McCourt. Now I'm the brother of Frank McCourt.''
Immigrating to New York, McCourt says, was like discovering oxygen, and he sees his life there as a series of turning points, Joycean epiphanies. ""Whatever I discovered about myself, I discovered in New York, reading, talking to kids, getting a sense of accomplishment from being a teacher.'' There was his third marriage, in 1994, to Ellen Frey, who, he says, ""taught me to be a grown-up.'' And then there was Chiara, his 5-year-old granddaughter. ""I was babysitting her one day when she was 2, and I began to notice how she talked. You gave her a ball, and said, "Ball,' and she said it after you and you could see her file this piece of information away. Kids take what they need. And they talk in the present tense. So I began to think about how I could use this.'' A few days later, he found himself writing, ""I'm in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother, Malachy. He's two, I'm three. We're on the seesaw''--early lines in the book. The child's voice, the innocent eye through which we see the world of ""Angela's Ashes,'' was born then and there. ""It was like a gift,'' McCourt says. ""This was one of those books that had to be written. If I'm happy now, it's because I wrote that book and it's successful and I'm embraced all over the place. If I hadn't written it, I'd probably be sitting around thinking about going back to teaching. I'd feel unfulfilled, as they say. And I'd die howling.''
""Angela's Ashes'' was written, in large part, to lay ghosts to rest, and in that sense it was a failure. Every time he goes back to Limerick, McCourt realizes that he has no armor against the past. ""I'm haunted by the place. I know every street, every door, because I delivered telegrams all over. That was the most emotional, most hopeful time of my life. I would be struck with such ecstasy that I would cry out in the street.'' The past, he has come to realize, is not something to banish but something to be lived with. ""It's very satisfying to come home now,'' he says, staring out the window of the car that's taking him away, to Cork and the next round of book signings. ""The city has changed and I've changed. I don't go home with that chip on my shoulder. I used to get off the plane at Shannon and I'd get very angry about my past. I'd see a priest and I'd want to haul him off his bicycle.'' But was there no sense of release when he finished the book? He doesn't answer immediately. Limerick is sliding away in the rearview mirror. ""There was no sense of release. As long as you have memory there's no catharsis.'' Objects in the mirror are closer than they seem.