A Monk Swimming

A Monk Swimming

4.0 12
by Malachy McCourt, David Case

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In 1952, travelling steerage, Malachy McCourt left a childhood of poverty in Limerick, Ireland, heading for the promise of America. This is the story of what he brought with him, and what he thought he left behind. Armed with savage humor and a gift for storytelling, fueled by rage and the desire never to go hungry again, he ran from memories of a drunken, vanished… See more details below


In 1952, travelling steerage, Malachy McCourt left a childhood of poverty in Limerick, Ireland, heading for the promise of America. This is the story of what he brought with him, and what he thought he left behind. Armed with savage humor and a gift for storytelling, fueled by rage and the desire never to go hungry again, he ran from memories of a drunken, vanished father and the humiliations of Angela, his mother. He arrived in a New York reminiscent of a Damon Runyon saga - a dark, glittering place, with saloons on every corner, and a new story waiting every night. Larger than life, a world-class drinker, McCourt carved out a place for himself: in the saloons, as the first celebrity bartender, mixing with socialites, writers, and movie stars; on stage, performing the works of James Joyce and Brendan Behan; and on television, where the tales he spun made him a Tonight Show regular. He had money and women and, eventually, children of his own; and that's when he found he had not left his memories as far behind as he had thought. From the notorious Tombs prison of New York City, to poolside arrests in Beverly Hills; in the company of gold-smugglers in Zurich and whores in Calcutta; from Paris, to Rome, and to Limerick once more, McCourt fled again, until he had no choice but to stop and turn and face his past.

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Editorial Reviews

Lucy Grealy

Malachy McCourt's memoir, A Monk Swimming, picks up the McCourt story -- begun in his brother Frank's Angela's Ashes -- in New York City, where Malachy arrived in 1952, at the age of 20, bearing not only the rich Irish accent that was his heritage, but also the infamous gift of gab. These things served him well: He became a colorful character not only as an actor -- he was a regular guest on the Jack Paar show, appeared in several films and in a number of plays -- but also in real life. He has often and gleefully drunk to excess, a habit that causes him to take frequent stabs at being preposterous: showing up naked at fancy bars; shocking expat Russian royalty by praising the revolution; haphazardly immersing himself, briefly, in the international smuggling trade.

Malachy McCourt is the embodiment of a certain Irish type; a talker, a drinker, a wit. It's very easy to picture him sitting next to you in some pub, swallowing his Johann Barleycorn (whiskey) and holding court. Still, as lovable a rapscallion as McCourt may be in real life, the raconteuring doesn't equal literary style. The average chapter length here is only about four pages, which, while creating the sense of a fast read, never allows anything or anyone to be described or pondered over in any real depth. Events both large and small, horrifying and gorgeous, are given the same quick quip treatment. Rather than use his obvious alacrity with language to his advantage, McCourt unfortunately reduces almost everything to a colorful saying. This is most obvious whenever he's describing sex, his own or someone else's: "inserting his sausage into a different lubricious casing every night" being just one example of the level here.

It's heinous, I think, to judge books against larger moral frameworks, and it's preposterous to ask McCourt to come to terms with his mythic drinking. But this would have been a far richer book if he'd chosen to ask questions in a style more conducive to insight than, for example, wondering why the Catholic church would rather a man sleep with a prostitute than masturbate: "Why ... is it less of a sin to stick the winkie into a paid lady than to wank? Theologians, please note."

McCourt captures the lilt of a coarse Irish accent perfectly with colloquialisms and a rhythmic juggling of syntax. Frequently, and this is what saves the book, McCourt's phrases really do hit the mark; one man is wonderfully described as having "the look of Jesus after a few bad days with the Romans." Electric fans do the "air-wafting duty." A rendezvous is in "some pretentious little orifice in a wall on the East Side." This ability to shape language is, as I said, what makes this book worthwhile. A better idea would have been to use this talent as a starting place for the book. With McCourt's passion for words as a means rather than an end, what a gorgeous memoir this might have been.

Ultimately, I don't think McCourt creates a genuine voice for himself so much as he accurately conveys the sound of an already established voice -- a voice you could easily argue is a stereotype. It's a hard-drinking, hard-living Mick telling this often shaggy tale, and if you're a die-hard Erinophile, then this book's for you. If you want a wee bit more than that, you might be disappointed. -- Salon

Cleveland Plain Dealer
A Monk Swimming is a delight not just as a successor to Angela's Ashes but on terms entirely its own.
Clare Loeffler
This is a funny and likeable book. -- Literary Review
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
This amusing intemperate memoir...speaks in the raucous brogue of a native freshly landed on a foreign shore. Outrageous and comic.
The New York Times
Philadelphia Inquirer
A rollicking good read that, as the Irish say, would make a dead man laugh.
People Magazine
Irresistible...equal parts pathos and belly laughs.
San Francisco Chronicle
Highly entertaining....Malachy McCourt's book rollicks along....it will certainly be of interest to anyone eager to learn more about the McCourts.
Kirkus Reviews
Malachy picks up the family story—well, his part of it anyway—where older brother Frank left off in Angela's Ashes. The McCourts lived in direst poverty in Limerick, Ireland, with their father (for whom Malachy was named) a charming but irresponsible drunk who deserted the family during WWII. In his own story, Malachy takes up matters with his arrival in New York City courtesy of Frank. After a brief stint in the army (about which he says almost nothing), Malachy becomes a longshoreman before drifting, almost inadvertently, into a dual career of raconteur-actor and minor-celebrity barkeep.

And a raconteur he is; Malachy is the sort of professional Irishman who is trotted out to entertain the 'quality' with his blarney-rich hijinks, songs, and drunken antics. In short, he's a somewhat more introspective (and better-read) version of his father. Therein lies the book's shortcoming. If readers are looking for the tormented and introspective recollections of Frank, they will be sorely disappointed. Malachy can spin a yarn and he can pile on the clever euphemisms and circumlocutions of the tavern philosopher with the greatest of ease, but a rollicking, roistering, roaring boy like him cannot be expected to turn his eyes inward for more than a few tired apercus about what a bad husband and father he was.

It's entirely appropriate that the two longest sections of the book are devoted to the collapse of his first marriage under the weight of his great thirsts and lusts, and a bizarre episode in which he smuggled gold ingots to India. The latter is more vividly told, a goofy adventure fueled by booze, but the former, by far the more important event, is recounted in a curdledtone of self-pity and self-flagellation. Sporadically amusing, but just as often infuriating.

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Product Details

Books on Tape, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged, 6 Cassettes
Product dimensions:
4.12(w) x 7.09(h) x 1.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

There was always the story in any gathering in Limerick. Be it boys, girls, the men, the women, bald facts were considered cold and inhuman; therefore all storied events had to be wrapped in words. Warm words, serried words, glittering, poetic, harsh, and even blasphemous words.

So the cold evenings were made warm with myths and tales of dirty doings and derring-do, and horrific yarns of the tortures of hell awaiting the evildoer. We the children sat in darkness, shivering in horrored delight, having been told we had two ears and unready tongue.

My father, Malachy, and his chums, Mr. Meehan, Mr. Looney, and Mr. Moran, spun out the silver-gold yarns and, by sheer eloquence, made our miserable surroundings disappear. And my father would sing his patriotic odes to Ireland, like the one about Roddy McCorley going to die on the bridge of Toome. My mother sang droopy love songs like, ``We Are in Love with You, My Heart and I.''

Death brought a silence to our house. First Baby Margaret Mary and then the twins--Eugene at four, and Oliver, four-and-a-half. Poverty killed them. My father left, to go on a lifelong drinking binge, never to come back, and I hated him for depriving me of him. It was many years before my mother sang another droopy love song, because she sank into a deep depression and love fled into the damp, grey Limerick sky, never to return.

The poor will always be with us, it sez in the Bible, and having had the strange privilege of being born into a not poor, but poverty-stricken, family, it became my passionate intention to be always with someone, but, by the living Jesus Christ, I would not be poor or poverty stricken.

I did not like being damp all the time. I did not like being cold and wet in the winter. I did not like looking in windows of shops filled with meats sweets biscuits breads, and my eyes bulging, the mouth aching for the chance to chew on something substantial. I did not like being eaten by fleas, gorging themselves on my bitter blood. I did not like having lice and nits in my hair my arse my armpits my eyebrows and every seam of the trousers and gansey I wore. I didn't like the boils and pimples on my small epidermis, not to mention the shame of scabies and ringworm. I didn't like having badly patched clothes and broken boots that Van Gogh would have sneered at. I didn't like having caked shit in my trousers because they couldn't be washed for the want of a replacement to wear while they were drying. I didn't like being made fun of and sneered at by the upper classes, who had tea and buns in the afternoon and electric light in every room.

I have never liked the smell of the newly made, newly varnished coffins that were brought in to take away our dead forever.

I was a smiley little fella with a raging heart and murderous instincts. One day I would show THEM--yes, you rotten fucking arsehole counter-jumping stuck-up jumped-up whore's-melts nose-holding tuppence-ha'penny-looking-down-on-tuppence snobs. I'll go back to America where I was born and I'll fart in yer faces.

And I did.

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What People are saying about this

James Brady
These McCourt boyos, the best literary family act since Dumas pere et fils.
Peter Quinn
Savagely funny, intoxicatingly sad, and wonderfully written.
Thomas Keneally
McCourt...makes his vivid, whimsical, raucous, murderous joy and voice available to the rest of us in tales of riot and glory.

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