Growing up dreadfully poor in Ireland, Frank McCourt dreamed of coasting into New York Harbor, a gateway to the land of opportunity. When he closed his red, infected eyes, the flea-ticked mattress he shared with his two brothers became a sailing ship and he was spirited off to a place where he believed no one wanted for a meal or the warm security of hearth and home.
In ANGELA'S ASHES, McCourt tells of his alcoholic father who drank away the meager family income and his self-sacrificing mother who begged for their sustenance. McCourt portrays his childhood with such charm and humor that he transformed the tragic circumstances of his family's poverty into literary gold. His efforts netted him a Pulitzer Prize.
It was with trepidation that I approached 'TIS, the second installment of McCourt's memoir. Could the story of his arrival in New York at the age of 19 and his struggle to gain a foothold on the ladder that would help him rise from his humble beginnings live up to his first book?
My fears were quickly put to rest.
Frank McCourt has the gift of a natural storyteller. His rich sense of humor serves him well once again and the poignancy of his desire to fit in tugs at the heartstrings. Arriving in New York, McCourt is pained by his physical appearance, afraid even to smile. "The minute I made some money in America I'd have to rush to the dentist to have my smile mended. You could see from the magazines and the films how the smile opened doors and brought girls running and if I didn't have the smile I might as well go back to Limerick and get a job sorting letters in a dark back room at the post office where they wouldn't care if you hadn't a tooth in your head."
McCourt finds little comfort in his new surroundings. He procures work as a janitor and later a dockworker, but the jobs scarcely fill his pockets or his empty well of self-esteem. He meets with much prejudice and, like his father before him, turns to drink to soothe his pain:
"I drank my beer and wondered what kind of a country is this where cops keep telling you move on, where people put pigeonshit in your ham sandwich, where a girl who's engaged to a football player walks away from me because I'm not wearing a tie, where a nun will baptize Michael...what's left of him though he suffered in a concentration camp and deserves to be left in his Jewish condition bothering no one, where college students eat and drink to their hearts' content and moan about existentialism and the emptiness of everything, and cops tell you once again, Move on."
McCourt finally finds salvation in literature and his love of books leads him to college. He struggles to attain his degree and eventually finds work as a high school English teacher. The teaching life is no picnic, as McCourt immediately discovers. His first words to his students are: "Stop throwing sandwiches."
The pages of 'TIS are enriched by the people McCourt meets, from a kindly black man who offers McCourt friendship and inspiration, to his hilarious drinking buddies, to the neighbors and friends who inhabit his small circle of life. He finds love and marries, scrapes together the funds to send for his aging mother in Ireland, and gradually finds success and some degree of fulfillment in his teaching. Yet his search for happiness and contentment is always laced with the longing for just a little more.
"It's hard to think I would have missed the same tea and bread every day, the collapsed bed swarming with fleas, a lavatory shared by all the families of the lane. No, I wouldn't have missed that but I would have missed the way it was with my mother and brothers, the talk around the table and the nights around the fire when we saw worlds in the flames, little caves and volcanoes and all kinds of shapes and images."
A good writer can bring those flames to life, can make us feel the warmth of a fire, can conjure up shapes and images until they stand before us. If we're lucky, we're treated to some laughs along the way. James Thurber said, "Humour is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility." There was plenty of emotional chaos in McCourt's life, but as he looks back through the lens of his own tranquility, it is his rich sense of humor that pushes 'TIS near the lofty heights attained by its predecessor and makes it a worthy sequel to ANGELA'S ASHES.
Reviewed by Vern Wiessner on September 21, 1999