Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Frank McCourt's trilogy of memoirs - Short notes on books by a master raconteur

Frank McCourt was over 60 when his first book a memoir was published and got a Pulitzer. Sound like something out of a book, but it's true and sometimes the truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. Following the success of his first book 'Angela's Ashes', he wrote 2 other follow up memoirs, tracing different parts of his life. In the best of cases, the term 'memoir' is pretty ambiguous, considering our propensity to selectively remember (unconsciously) only certain events and that too only in the manner in which we want to. In McCourt's case too, there have been a lot of accusations that he exaggerated things in his memoirs (particularly the first one). Anyway, these books could be read either as a straight forward memoir or a book with both fact and fiction mixed. 

Angela's Ashes - The book is McCourt memoir of his childhood and early adulthood,  growing up in Brooklyn and Limerick (Ireland), with more emphasis on Limerick where he spent the most of his childhood after his parents returned back to Ireland. McCourt is born as the eldest son Malachy and Angela.The initial parts detail their life in Brooklyn, with his father unable to hold on to his job, the regular childbirth, death of one of them which results in the family moving back to Ireland. Limerick is a gloomy city as portrayed by McCourt, not just in the climate, but also in the claustrophobic atmosphere, where religion and sin (naturally) looms large over the people. It is a hard life, sharing a single toilet with an entire lane, the father suffering from a drinking problem resulting in persistent poverty where the family just about manages to stay above water, just a step above the beggars. The father is a classic case of drink-bust, cheerful and loving towards his family when not in the influence of drinks and a monster when in it's influence, which seems to be about most of the time. The part where Angela and Frank search for him on Salary day to make sure that they get at-least some of it before he blows it up is something that is common to any place in the world. A family going bust due to the actions of the father. McCourt though, shows signs of enterprise from childhood, getting small jobs and trying to make do with the money he gets. As Malachy finally the leaves the family for good, Frank gets to be the sole earner, with his brothers being much younger. (Frank himself being only 14 or 15 then). They then have to swallow the fact that their Mother has to give sexual favors to a relative in return for him letting the family stay with them. The books ends with Frank making his way to America at 19. Though most of the incidents in the book is gloomy, it is told i mostly a comic manner, making the book a kind of tragicomedy.Through all the sufferings, deprivations Frank never loses his sense of humor, always trying to make the best out of things. The growing up pangs of Franks, his preoccupation of being without sin at any point (the Catholic impact of sin) so that if he dies the next moment his soul won't go to hell may seen funny, but more than that it shows the impact that militant religious teaching can have on young minds. You can sense and feel the cold, dark, unforgiving climate of the place, the terror the teachers/priests would have created in the young kids and above all feel the pain of a family struggling to make its way through the squalor that is life itself. However, some of the incident stretch the limits of credulity that a reader would be willing to assume. One can only assume that Frank did some embellishment for the sake of making them more interesting. In any case, McCourt is the consummate story teller in this book, whether the events are fact or fiction. He never loses his grip, whether it is describing his drunken father awakening the kids at night to make them sing, or the kids trying to climb up a pole to see a nude girl or searching around for coal to survive the winter. He tells about all these with verve, panache and above all with an eye for making them all sound engrossing, the mark of a true and great storyteller, nay rather raconteur. 

'Tis - The book starts with Frank arriving in America, looks at his struggle to find a job and place to stay, moves to his joining the army, being posted in Germany, the incidents that happen there. He then returns to America, joins 'New York University', gets married, has a drinking problem, joins the teaching profession and gets divorced. The book ends with his mother's death and Frank and his brother getting together in a bar to drink in her memory. I see that the above part seems more like a synopsis than any actual impact of the book. That's because the book itself is structured like this, all events seem to happen in a breakneck speed with no time for  any reflection. Now, a page turner is not a bad thing at all, but at what cost. Tightly constructed writing and page turners need not be mutually exclusive, like say even 'Angela's Ashes'. You could write a tight, well constructed book that could be hugely entertaining without compromising it's basic content. But here Frank seems to have concentrated only on the entertainment part, the result being that the books goes at a breakneck speed, but unfortunately to nowhere land. We never get the empathy for the characters that we got in 'Angela's Ashes', though there are a lot of such incidents in the book. Most incidents are just skimmed on the surface and then it's on to the next incident. For instance Frank's meeting with his estranged father. It's almost as if Frank decided to put it in the book as an afterthought since it would have made for a great incident. There could have been any number of ways in which the two met. But we never get to know whether Frank is comfortable or un-comfortable or angry or happy or sad or completely disassociated or disinterested with meeting his father. It's like Frank thought that the premise of the two meeting would be enough to carry the next few pages. Or Frank's drinking problem and his divorce due to that. He is honest and frank enough to admit the drinking problem, but again it is glossed over and his divorce is like a footnote with nothing on the emotional crisis that would have followed during and after it. When one looks at the whole book, Frank seems to have made a conscious decision to skim over the hard/sad parts as much as possible, while making sure that the book is an entertainer. I think that's where the books goes wrong, instead of being an engrossing read it strives to be entertaining and in the process, losing much of the emotional investment that the reader did in the first book and ultimately resulting in a bloated, half baked memoir.

Teacher Man - This is the final part of the memoir and is about Frank's teaching career. He taught for about 30 years in various schools and the book is about that. This is the slimmest of the 3 books, which could be good in one way considering the length of 'Tis and the journey to nowhere in it. On the other hand, one cannot but think about the experiences and incidents that could have gone into it considering Frank's long teaching career. The book does have it's moments though, like the furor that teaching 'Catcher in the Rye' causes among parents, Frank giving essay assignments with a title of reason for taking leave/not doing homework etc, which causes the students imagination to run amok. But by and large it seems like an opportunity missed by Frank to mine such a vast period of experience, but again considering 'Tis it may not have been such a bad decision to keep it trim. 

When one considers all the 3 books, 'Angela's Ashes' is obviously the best one and a must read. The other two suffer from the classic case of writing what one thinks the reader would like instead of writing what one wants with the confidence that the reader would like it. In any case, McCourt seems more like a great raconteur than a writer, one with whom one can readily spend a considerable time listening to his experiences. (notwithstanding the jerks we get in the second and third parts of the memoir). I just think that maybe the second and third books too would be a great read as an audio book, listening to them in McCourt's voice itself. 

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