Remembering Angela's Ashes Author Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt was a reporter's dream. Sure, he was a great writer. With the Pulitzer prize-winning Angela's Ashes, his wrenching account of a "miserable Irish childhood" in the slums of Limerick, he established himself as one of the premier memoirists of our time. And he was a warm and intelligent man in the bargain. But if you ever had to cover him as journalist, you felt like you'd used up all your good luck for a month. And "cover him" isn't entirely accurate, because that implies some degree of labor, and with McCourt—who died Sunday at the age of 78, of metastatic melanoma—it was always no sweat. In all of our encounters (two trips to Ireland, a long day in New York City, and numerous phone interviews), I always suspected that if I left him alone in a room with my tape recorder, I could come back two hours later and transcribe what he had said in my absence and the story would've written itself. He wasn't a blabbermouth. He was simply the most eloquent person I've ever interviewed. (Story continued below...)

In the summer of 1997, I followed him on a book tour of Ireland. It was a hectic week, with stops in Galway, Sligo, Dublin, Cork, and every small town in-between big enough to boast a bookstore. Throughout the week, in store after store, he was unflappable, agreeably chatting, signing books, and answering questions from reporters, fans, and the merely curious. But the fifth stop was Limerick, his hometown, 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 whether McCourt got it right in his book. "Accurate enough," he murmured. Then, as if he was afraid he'd sounded stingy, he said, "Frankie has the gift. He brought it all back. There's a lot in there we hadn't remembered." Then a man walked up to the table where McCourt was signing books, threw a yellowed photograph on the table and said, "Do you know what that is?" Of course—it was the photograph of his class at Leamy's National School, the picture in the front of his book. "Which one am I?" the man demanded. McCourt couldn't say. That provoked 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 took on a hard edge when he began to address the crowd a few minutes later. "I can do no more than tell the truth," he began. "People who think I have insulted Ireland or Limerick or my family have not read the book!" An ovation drowned out whatever he said next. Then he began to read, and the rancor evaporated 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 it had every time he read it on the tour, that line got a big laugh, but the mood of the Limerick reading was different from all the others. The bleak passages that McCourt picked to read far outnumbered 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 stopped reading and told 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 that—and maybe it was hearing it in Limerick, the city where the story took place—I finally understood that to McCourt, Angela's Ashes, for all its art, was first and last the marrow of his life and the life of his family.

If he had a weakness, it was his vulnerability to those charges that he had embroidered the truth, or merely made things up. I teased him about it, partly out of a reporter's reluctance to be taken in, partly to see how many ways he could find to answer the question. How did he remember so much? And so far back? After all, the earliest memory in Angela's Ashes takes place when he's 3, five decades before the book appeared. "We had nothing, no television, no radio, nothing to get in the way," McCourt said at one point. "We read by the streetlight at the top of the lane, and we acted out the stories. [My brother] 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."

But my favorite explanation, because it so perfectly captured his blend of self-effacement and self-mockery, came after the dust-up at the Limerick bookstore, when McCourt admitted that he had erred at least once, a mistake he discovered on a previous journey to his hometown. It had happened at yet another book signing, he said, 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 shook his head at the memory. "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, said of course he could. "That's fine, then," Willie said, "you let me have this book, Frankie, and we'll be forgetting about the sister."

Reduced to its essentials, Angela's Ashes looks like an encyclopedia of Irish cliché—the alcoholic pa, the long-suffering ma, the wee lads without a crust among 'em. Yet somehow 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," the 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.

McCourt claimed not to understand why Angela's Ashes was so popular. "I thought it might appeal to women who had been through childbirth and some adversity," he said dryly. But clearly, he himself was the not-so-secret ingredient in the book's success. He was a publicist's dream: a first-rate writer with stage presence. He knew just how much personal lore to confide in an interview, but he was never embarrassingly indiscreet—he'd had a couple of bad marriages, he was a lapsed Roman Catholic, he could take a drink without any problem. 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 could easily understand why he carried around an appointment calendar (bookstore signings, readings, interviews) a half-inch thick.

His writing changed McCourt's fortunes (his three memoirs have together sold more than 10 million copies worldwide) but if it changed McCourt, I never saw the evidence. He was in his late 60s when his first book made him famous and wealthy, and he was old enough to enjoy his good fortune forthrightly and with grace. Celebrity, the condition of being famous because you're famous, gave him a case of the yips. With a queasy look, he told of a night when a woman swooped down on him in a restaurant and demanded his autograph, saying, "I don't know your name, but I know you're somebody." Having been somebody for a long time before he walked into the spotlight, he bore such indignities lightly.

Angela's Ashes ends with McCourt arriving in America in 1949 at the age of 19. "When I came to America, all I had was this story," he said. "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. Otherwise he 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, first at vocational schools and then, for 18 years, teaching English at prestigious Stuyvesant High, where he is still a legend among the alumni. "When we were in 12th grade," one of his students said, "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."

Immigrating to New York, McCourt said, was like discovering oxygen, and he saw 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 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 said. "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."

After the appearance of each of his three memoirs ('Tis describes his immigrant experience in the United States, Teacher Man details his teaching career), I always hoped he would write even more, because that would mean that I might interview him again. Now that possibility is gone. There will be no more books and no more talk from Frank McCourt. I know that any time I want, I can go to the shelf and pull down Angela's Ashes or one of the other books, and there he'll be, almost as good as in the room. Very few people got their voices onto the page as well as he did. But "almost" isn't the same as the full Frank. There won't be that sense of amazement at the ease with which he could coin a quip on the fly. There will be no shock at the endlessly articulate talk that poured out at the dinner table. He was a fine writer, but he was perhaps an even greater talker. It was the kind of talk that no one has figured out how to get between the pages of a book, not even Frank McCourt.