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Not-So-Great Expectations

These three memoirs are works to end all memoirs—if only that were true! Now, at a time when every form of cultural and human difference claims the right to parade itself, everybody, it seems, has a story to tell and expects to tell it in print. The publishing industry is drowning in personal testimony. Whatever became of the oral tradition—of confidences exchanged sotto voce in barrooms and over backyard fences, between strangers on a plane or a train, among revelers at a banquet table or around an outdoor barbeque?

Notwithstanding these cavils, it must be confessed that Angela’s Ashes is a wonderful book, fully deserving of the top spot on various best-seller lists since it came out in 1996, an inevitable choice for a Pulitzer Prize, and of so beguiling a nature that it has made the author, Frank McCourt, a retired New York City high school teacher, into—what else?—a celebrity. His celebrityhood was brought home to me emphatically a couple of years ago, when he appeared at Douglass College of Rutgers University to give an endowed lecture in a hall with a seating capacity of four hundred. At least twice that many people came to hear him, filling up the aisles and the several exits with standees, a large percentage of the entire crowd clutching copies of Angela’s Ashes for autographing.

Everyone by now must know its story. The time span is from the Depression era through World War II and the first years after. The McCourts, an immigrant family living in Brooklyn, return to Ireland when Frankie is four or so. The father, a Northern Catholic from County Antrim, is a drunkard who drinks up his wages, when he has any, losing job after job and leaving his family in a continuous state of crisis, failing health, and undernourishment. The mother, in the toils of frequent child- bearing and early child-rearing, is not of a character to pull the family through. Angela is not a housekeeper and typically spends her occasional better days drinking tea and gossiping with neighboring cronies. That is not to say she is incapable of rising to the occasion when a child is down with a life-threatening illness, and she will beg in the streets to keep the children from starving to death.

First little Margaret succumbs to the dismal conditions at home. This is in Brooklyn. Later on, when the family has resettled in Limerick, “Mam“‘s birthplace, after some garish adventures in Dublin and Antrim, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, go under. Again the primary cause is the squalid, unhygienic, and pauperized conditions in which the family struggles, while Dad plays his alcoholic’s tricks of losing menial jobs or getting rid of a week’s slender wages in one swaggering night out in the public houses. When he goes over to Coventry, where there is war work, his behavior is no different.

A word about Limerick, a city whose gray walls seem to exude gloom. It is the main scene of Frankie’s boyhood and youth. The third- or fourth-largest city in Ireland, situated at the head of the Shannon Estuary, it lies under skies that are frequently invaded by storm clouds and rain squalls from the Atlantic nearby. Then there is the dark episode in the city’s history when its defenders, in 1690, were overwhelmed by the Williamites. A fair treaty was negotiated but none of its provisions was ever kept, leading straight on to enactment of the Penal Code, under which the Catholic Irish languished for nearly a century. The Penal Code, for a sample, prohibited Catholics from inheriting land, from owning a horse valued above five pounds, from attending school and church, and it banished all Catholic clergy from Ireland under sentence of death.

In Frankie’s telling of his story, however, gloom and suffering are often played off against a keen sense of the absurd and a rich, compensatory fantasy life:

The ship pulled away from the dock. Mam said, That’s the Statue of Liberty and that’s Ellis Island where all the immigrants came in. Then she leaned over the side and vomited and the wind from the Atlantic blew it all over us and other happy people admiring the view. Passengers cursed and ran, seagulls came from all over the harbor and Mam hung limp and pale on the ship’s rail.

So concludes the narrative in Chapter One. It’s a crafty piece of writing, though not typical of the book as a whole, since McCourt has chosen to write most of the story in the cur-rently fashionable historical present. Although this technique tends to be overused or misused by many fiction and memoir writers of late, it works well for a child observer-narrator like Frankie, oldest of the four surviving McCourt boys, of whose experiences so many are new and unanticipated, and often produce devastating consequences.

Indeed, the construction of the slowly maturing child narrator is the central imaginative achievement of the book. Although the opening pages owe something to the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist, the more sustained link is with Dickens’s child narrators in Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Frankie’s literal-mindedness, his gullibility, induce him to swallow any tale or alibi presented to him. This innocence, and the utter absence of self-consciousness and prejudice he displays as he moves about Limerick from his home base in the worst hovel in the worst street in the festering slums of the city, combine to make his account as authentic and even as amusing as it is emotionally convincing. He is shameless in speaking of the many humiliations inflicted on the family by circumstance, and sly in his dealings with adults and juveniles alike. McCourt is able to tease out of the worst occurrences a quality of the comic or absurd.

McCourt is also aware that he is working in a great tradition of Irish writing, the bringing together of dark and light, the omnipresence of tragicomedy in Irish life and letters. Put simply there is the time when Frankie has a rare candy treat in his mouth, despite the terrible condition of his blackened teeth (“There’s pain on one side and delicious toffee on the other”). Later on he gets a job reading the writings of Jonathan Swift to old Mr. Timoney, who is blind, a freethinker, and believes that Buddhism would be a better religion for the quarrelsome Irish than either Roman Catholicism or Orange Presbyterianism. Frankie is of course horrified when the Proposer of A Modest Proposal suggests a cure for Irish over-population through infanticide and using soft baby skin to make boots for fine gentlemen. But he also notices that there is something in Swift’s treatment of the argument that elicits laughter along with condemnation. Thrusting comedy into the very teeth of misery is a central technique in McCourt’s first book, strengthening its impact and doubtless guaranteeing Angela’s Ashes a long life.

Young Frankie’s telling is rich in fantasy yet it can also be devastating social criticism. The Irish often claim that they are free from class prejudice or that it is a vice imported from the neighboring island. The following passage, which takes place when Frankie is about twelve, serves as a corrective to such illusions:

We go to school through lanes and back streets so that we won’t meet the respectable boys who go to the Christian Brothers’ school or the rich ones who go to the Jes-uit school, Crescent College. The Christian Brothers’ boys wear tweed jackets, warm woolen sweaters, shirts, ties and shiny new boots. We know they’re the ones who will get jobs in the civil service and help the people who run the world. The Crescent College boys wear blazers and school scarves tossed around their necks and over their shoulders to show they’re cock o’ the walk. They have long hair which falls across their foreheads and over their eyes so they can toss their quiffs like Englishmen. We know they’re the ones who will go to university, take over the family business, run the government, run the world. We’ll be the messenger boys on bicycles who deliver their groceries or we’ll go to England to work on the building sites. Our sisters will mind their children and scrub their floors unless they go off to England, too. We know that. We’re ashamed of the way we look and if boys from the rich schools pass remarks we’ll get into a fight and wind up with bloody noses or torn clothes. Our masters will have no patience with us and our fights because their sons go to the rich schools and, Ye have no right to raise your hands to a better class of people so ye don’t.

Frank’s school is Leamy’s National, whose masters rule with the rod and the blow. Here another link to Dickens is suggested, this time to the boy-tormenting Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickelby, except that McCourt’s account isn’t made up.

In ‘Tis: A Memoir, a direct sequel to Angela’s Ashes, Frank arrives in New York at around age nineteen aboard the freighter Irish Oak (for obscure reasons the ships of Ireland’s small merchant navy were all named after trees). In appearance he resembles what an abusive character in one of Pinter’s early plays calls a “slum slug.” Scrawny of build and “flat-arsed” from 13,000 miles spent delivering telegrams by bicycle, he also shows a face with acne, blackened and decaying teeth, and two eyes encircled by a chronic, severe, oozing conjunctivitis, making them look like “two piss holes in the snow.”

If McCourt’s first memoir was a story of survival in terrible conditions and against heavy odds, ‘Tis is one of making it in a modest way in the city of ambitious dreams. Beginning as a houseboy at the Hotel Biltmore, of so uncouth an appearance that he is removed from a lobby cleaning assignment to work among friendly Puerto Ricans in the hotel’s kitchen, he progresses to jobs as a warehouse man, stevedore, and forklift operator before doing a stint in the US Army. His service is a great success. Sent to Germany to be trained as a K-9 dog handler, he is chosen for the cushy job of company clerk and promoted to the rank of corporal. Now, on a leave, he revisits Limerick, “city of the violated treaty.” Although not received as a glamorous Yank soldier, as he had hoped, he does make his peace with Angela.

They have been at daggers drawn ever since he confronted her over her affair with brutish Gerard Grennan, her cousin, while Dad was away in Coventry, most of the time intoxicated and jobless. In a charming episode he revisits the slum lane where he grew up. Old neighbors stand at their hovel doors and flatter him with their praise. An old blind woman compliments him on how well he is looking.

Everywhere he goes in ‘Tis Frank is advised to stick with his own kind, meaning Irish Catholic working people. This ill consorts with his love of poetry and books, his secret hope of meeting, wedding, and bedding a beautiful WASP Episcopalian girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and perfect teeth, and entering the cultured class through somehow qualifying for a college education. In Ireland he had been forced to leave school at fourteen, the usual school-leaving age in the late 1940s for boys without prospects or connections. He achieves all these great things: a degree from NYU, love and marriage with Episcopalian Alberta, a beautiful blond girl he first met in a college class, and, finally, a position as a high school teacher of English in the city system, where he succeeds in capturing the attention of bored and cynical students at a trades high school on Staten Island by telling them stories about his early life. He does equally well with the bright, ambitious students at the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan by showing them the pleasures of the imagination.

Still he is unsatisfied. Ever since he studied the photographs and cartoons of literary figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas on the walls of the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village he has hankered after being known. His younger brother Malachy enjoys some prominence in New York as the proprietor of a popular uptown bar and as a sometime actor and radio personality. Yet he, the oldest, still lingers in comparative obscurity. What is there left to say? Drawing on the autobiographical sketches he wrote for one of his college classes, he achieves celebrity by writing Angela’s Ashes, while along the way his marriage to Alberta, the mother of his beloved daughter Maggie, crumbles.

Tis is an altogether lesser accomplishment than its predecessor, lacking as it does the tragicomic violence and confessional power of Angela’s Ashes. Moreover the use here of the historical present is with few exceptions probably a mistake. With a fully grown narrator the effect is too often one of false naiveté and heedlessness, and it gets monotonous. We expect more nuance, reflection, and judgment than when a child is speaking and acting. The full range of English tenses and moods would have served this memoir better, as with the passage I’ve quoted from Angela’s Ashes about Mam’s parting shot on the ship, where the simple sequence of verbs in the past tense serves to intensify the shame and the humor.

Michael Patrick MacDonald, the narrator of the memoir All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, was born in 1966, the ninth of eleven children of Helen (MacDonald) King by her two husbands and at least two lovers. Strong and eccentric, “Ma” has been a saloon singer and accordionist and can more than hold her own in a fight. She shoves a quarrelsome neighbor head first into a brick wall before stomping her thick glasses into powder. She beats up a lover, rumored to have denied his parenthood of the child she was then carrying in the fourth month of pregnancy, while he lies recovering from serious surgery in Boston’s Carney Hospital. She has raised most of her children as a single mother in a six-room apartment in the Old Colony housing project in South Boston. After the tenth child, the Boston Housing Authority agreed to take down an interior wall, converting the space into ten rooms with no increase of rent—light, heat, and gas, of course, being free.

Growing up at Old Colony, in one of the most inward and self-isolating Irish-American working-class communities in the country, Michael Patrick at first thinks he must be in heaven. Hordes of children roam the streets, keeping no regular hours for coming in or going out, eating when they feel like it, and going to bed when they drop. School attendance is no more than an option among others, such as shoplifting, rolling drunks, and punching out any stranger who wanders onto Southie turf. Moral influence from the local Catholic churches is nil and most of the cops—it seems like all of them—are on the take, bribed to mind their own business.

Children, teenagers, and adults alike are supplied with expensive designer clothes by “Skoochie,” a woman of ratlike physiognomy, who spends long hours shoplifting from the best Boston stores downtown. Her usual discount to her South Boston clientele is two thirds off the ticket price. For those so inclined there are soft and hard drugs sold nearly everywhere. The great festival of the Southie year was St. Patrick’s Day with its grand parade, when many got drunk in their green costumes while waving tribal images quite unknown to the actual Irish in Ireland.

From the first sentence MacDonald’s account moves as a series of shocks: “I was back in ‘Southie, the best place in the world,’ as Ma used to say before the kids died.” “I thought about how much I’d hated this place when I’d learned that everything I’d just heard myself say about Southie loyalty and pride was a big myth, one that fit well into the schemes of career politicians and their gangster relatives.” Here he is aiming at the Bulger brothers, the one who was president of the Massachusetts Senate, the other—Whitey Bulger—who was kingpin of the South Boston rackets, especially illegal drug distribution, until it came out that he was simultaneously chief FBI informant on his neighbors.

Michael Patrick’s disillusionment and the redirection of his energies toward a college education and a career as a community activist come at a high cost, the lost and wasted lives of four of his siblings. Davey, the oldest, moves into crime at fourteen, then develops a psychosis, and jumps off the roof directly opposite the family apartment at age twenty-three. Francis Xavier becomes one of the most successful boxers in New England and dies at age twenty-four when as a favor he takes the place of his brother Kevin in an armored car heist. Escaping the shoot-out with a slight wound, he is strangled by his confederates in the getaway car because they fear he might fall into the hands of the police and tell all. Sister Kathy, bright-eyed and curly-haired, has already been reduced to a near-vegetative state. At age thirteen she goes delinquent and becomes seriously drug addicted. At nineteen she falls, jumps, or is thrown off the same roof during a quarrel with her racketeer boyfriend and is in a coma for four months before regaining consciousness. Kevin Patrick, most precocious of Ma’s children in working scams and carrying out burglaries, also dies young at twenty-two.

The book gives an authoritative, “inside” account of the time, in the mid-Seventies, which is referred to as the “Louise Day Hicks era,” named for the stridently anti-busing school committeewoman when minority children were bussed into Southie in compliance with Judge Garrity’s order to integrate Boston’s schools. The consequence was a fierce war in the streets. All Souls also vividly describes the saturation of the community with cocaine, heroin, crack, and other poisons during the Eighties.

Ma was just doing whatever she could to keep her mind off what she was feeling. But the hearses kept rolling down Dorchester Street, where in better days we’d watched the St. Paddy’s Day parade and the antibusing motorcades. And every time it was another Southie mother’s turn to see her child off at Jackie O’Brien’s, it brought Ma right back to reality. She started going to all the wakes, even if she didn’t know the family, and in about a year she counted that she’d been to thirty-two, all dead from suicide, drugs, or crime. Ma started hanging out with other women whose sons or daughters had died, and she started cutting some of their hair too—until they learned to make sure they went to the hairdresser’s on a regular basis so Ma wouldn’t have them walking down Broadway in one of those new-fangled cosmopolitan hairdos she was bringing to Southie from the gay clubs.

After attending numerous wakes within a single year in which the dead are all young victims of either drugs or violence, Michael Patrick MacDonald seriously considers suicide. Instead he gets busy finishing his education, working with the African-American poor in adjacent Roxbury, and helping to organize the Boston Police gun buy-back program, which proved a great success in Charlestown—another self-destroying Boston Irish enclave—and in Southie itself.

One has waited for someone to tell the truth about South Boston for a long time, to show it as the hellish place and ethnic trap that it is. All Souls is a memoir filled with desperation and despair, but there is also hope in it, as Michael Patrick moves back into the community from which he had fled and admits to his continuing love for it. A blurb by Malachy McCourt, Frank’s younger brother, says of All Souls that “it will leave you weeping and laughing uproariously.” For me there are few laughs, most of these elicited by Ma’s adventures in love, in easy-come easy-go wedlock, and in nights of music-making in South Boston bars, where as an aging woman she continues to wear a miniskirt and spike heels.

Ma ends up living in Colorado, just like any ordinary, middle-class retiree. MacDonald’s truthful account lacks any trace of ego-tripping, vengefulness, hidden agendas, or confessional wallowing. His discovery of his vocation in neighborhood activism is a refreshing change from most memoirs, which so often, even in a modest account like ‘Tis, are largely concerned with describing an ascent to celebrityhood.

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