Monday, July 20, 2009

When Rosie's son met Angela's son -- on Frank McCourt

Long before "A Million Little Pieces" triggered new rules for memoir writing -- at least most or at least the best parts must be true -- "Angela's Ashes" charmed me and millions of other readers around the world. It was Frank McCourt's masterful telling of Angela's son growing up extremely hungry in Limerick, Ireland.

I loved that book, and put aside a lingering sense that much of it was just made up, especially the farcical description of Frank's arrival as a young man in New York. I put aside my scruples and just loved the story, the language and the blend of misery and comedy: it was pitch perfect.

McCourt, who died last weekend, told the story through the eyes of a boy who only partially took in the anguish and desperation of his mother. To feed her children, she even took to sleeping with a brutish relative.

"Angela's Ashes" provided a reminder to the descendants of Irish immigrants just why people left the Old Sod: it was miserable to have no work and no future. People had to leave. McCourt told that part with a special twist: his family came to America but returned to Ireland because his drunken father failed to keep gainful employment in the U.S. Back in Ireland, McCourt's father wandered off and Angela made do.

McCourt became celebrated as a great authority on all things Irish and his book tours brought out crowds of well wishing Irish Americans -- except for my dad who complained bitterly about McCourt and went to an event with me in Seattle just to tell him off. McCourt had committed the Unforgiveable Sin, in my dad's estimation: telling tales on your mother. And it was true: McCourt like many other writers had betrayed his mother for the sake of the story he wanted to tell. Or sell, as my dad might have said.

So sometime after "Angela's Ashes" came out, McCourt came to Seattle for an event at epicenter of all things Irish here, F.X. McRory's. I entered with my dad who began to chat people up about the disloyalty of McCourt and the outrage of his writing. The highlight of the moment was my conversation with McCourt in which he failed to hear my dad's running commentary.

I knew why my dad was angry. His own mother lost her husband (to an accident) and she raised her children during the Depression in Philadelphia with the meager wages she earned as a hotel maid. During this time, my dad and his brother Frank went door to door selling vegetables using a cart pulled by a horse named Peaches.

Though she never reached Angela's level of desperation, Rose McLaughlin Corr put two of her sons in a Philadelphia orphanage so they could be educated. One of those sons was my Dad, who remained close to his mother throughout his life, even after he settled in Seattle where he had met a former Potlatch Queen who had become a Navy nurse. As a little boy, I sat next to my dad when the phone rang and he got word that his mother had died. A few minutes into the conversation, I realized what he was hearing and suddenly I sensed the boy in the man beside me. The grief seemed to fill the room. To this day, I don't think I had observed another human being with such intensity.

So my dad just couldn't read "Angela's Ashes" as I had. And I understood.

Update: A former student of McCourt says he had an astonishing memory.