A Monk Swimming: A Memoir

( 12 )


Slapped with a libel suit after an appearance on a talk show, Malachy McCourt crows, "If they could only see me now in the slums of Limerick, a big shot, sued for a million. Bejesus, isn't America a great and wonderful country?" His older brother Frank's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela's Ashes, took its somber tone from the bleak atmosphere of those slums, while Malachy's boisterous recollections are fueled by his zestful appreciation for the opportunities and oddities of ...

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Slapped with a libel suit after an appearance on a talk show, Malachy McCourt crows, "If they could only see me now in the slums of Limerick, a big shot, sued for a million. Bejesus, isn't America a great and wonderful country?" His older brother Frank's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela's Ashes, took its somber tone from the bleak atmosphere of those slums, while Malachy's boisterous recollections are fueled by his zestful appreciation for the opportunities and oddities of his native land.

He and Frank were born in Brooklyn, moved with their parents to Ireland as children, then returned to the States as adults. This book covers the decade 1952-63, when Malachy roistered across the U.S., Europe, and Asia, but spent most of his time in New York City. There his ready wit and quick tongue won him an acting job with the Irish Players, a semiregular stint on The Tonight Show hosted by Jack Paar, and friendships with some well-heeled, well-born types who shared his fondness for saloon life and bankrolled him in an East Side saloon that may have been the first singles bar. He chronicles those events—and many others—with back-slapping bonhomie.

Although McCourt acknowledges the personal demons that pursued him from his poverty-stricken childhood and destroyed his first marriage, this is on the whole an exuberant autobiography that pays tribute to the joys of a freewheeling life.

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Editorial Reviews

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.
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

Clare Loeffler
This is a funny and likeable book. -- Literary Review
Cleveland Plain Dealer
A Monk Swimming is a delight not just as a successor to Angela's Ashes but on terms entirely its own.
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.
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

  • ISBN-13: 9780786884148
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 6/2/1999
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 478,429
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (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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Table of Contents

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Interviews & Essays

On June 1, 1998, barnesandnoble.com on AOL was pleased to welcome Malachy McCourt to our Authors@aol series. Malachy McCourt is a writer and an actor who has performed on stage and television, and in such films as "The Devil's Own," "She's the One," and "The Bonfire of the Vanities." His brother Frank is the author of ANGELA'S ASHES. Malachy McCourt's memoir is called A MONK SWIMMING.

AkioBN: Mr. McCourt, pleased to have you with us tonight.

Malachy McCourt: You are? [laughs]

AkioBN: Well...

Malachy McCourt: You must be mad! [laughs]

AkioBN: Yes, I think we are. If you're as ready as you're ever going to be, shall we turn it over to our audience?

Malachy McCourt: Let's turn it over to the audience, whoever he or she is!

Question: Have you been greatly encouraged as a writer by the recent minor Renaissance in Irish and Irish-American literature?

Malachy McCourt: Very heavy question for what I would consider a personal memoir. I don't consider myself a writer; all I did was tell a few stories and called upon the old Irish tradition of storytelling.

Question: In writing your memoir, did you bear in mind the stereotype of the drunken, cavorting New York Irish American? How did it affect your writing, if at all?

Malachy McCourt: [laughs] I did my best to be the best stereotype of the best drunk I could be. Of course, I am joking. The fact is that I drank a lot and behaved in the most ludicrous fashion. But I was too drunk to realize that I was acting the stereotype. Of course, I was too brilliant to be the stereotypical drunk. (I'm renowned for my modesty.)

Question: How did ANGELA'S ASHES resonate with you, and with the rest of your family?

Malachy McCourt: It certainly is a good word, "resonate." And it did clear the air of a lot of confusion, inherent anger, and despair, and allowed us to reunite joyfully as brothers and resonated well. It was a classic work by a classic man.

Question: What was it like to go from poverty to the superficial lusts of the entertainment industry?

Malachy McCourt: [laughs] Heavenly!

Question: Given what your mother went through, was it hard relating to American women? Were they different from the Irish?

Malachy McCourt: I found it very difficult to relate to women at all, because after a certain age the Irish male is expected to sort of disappear to the pub, and the women have their place in the kitchen. Having these role models, we hardly used the word "love" at all with our families. My first marriage, I never said, "I love you" to my wife, children, and grandchildren. It was hard, sissyish. Now, with my second marriage, I can say that. I can say that I love women without being patronizing or sexist.

Question: Malachy, I have not had a chance to read your book yet but am looking forward to it! Can I surmise that you had to deal with alcoholism?

Malachy McCourt: Yes, absolutely. I'm a recovering alcoholic. I haven't had a drink in 13 years.

Question: There are so many people, myself included, that would love to talk with you and Frank in person. I have so many questions. Would this ever be possible?

Malachy McCourt: I'm going on a book tour to all the major cities; that would be the only time. I've changed over the years. Frank depicted me as a cute, cuddly kind of guy. Now I'm 250 pounds, and no one could pick me up. You might not even want to talk to me in person! (If you'd like to see what I look like, then tune in to "Good Morning America" at 8am tomorrow morning.)

Question: I am a recovering alcoholic also. How hard was it for you to quit, and what words do you have to share with us that have just started?

Malachy McCourt: It's simple, but it is not easy. Therefore, do not pick up your first drink. For me, I just say I never drink when I am sober. How's that for an idiotic statement? But it's true. A day at a time, and do not drink that first drink. And every single alcoholic in the world recovers. It's best to do it when you're alive. And then you'll write your own memoir.

Question: Are your parents still alive?

Malachy McCourt: No. My mother died in 1981 in New York. She came on a visit, which lasted over 20 years. My father outlived her, and he died in 1986. Next year he would've been 100 if he lived.

Question: Does Guinness really taste different in Ireland than in the States?

Malachy McCourt: Yes it does, because of the water. And don't be asking any more questions like that, or you're going to get me thirsty!

Question: Have Michael and Alphie tried their hands at writing, as now has the other half of the McCourt litter?

Malachy McCourt: [laughs] "Litter," my arse! Alphie is writing poetry and writing songs, and Mike decided...well, to quote Mike himself, "I'm waiting until the rest of you are dead!" He says he's going to do a porno film in our hometown, titled "Debbie Does Limerick."

Question: What's your opinion of the Northern Ireland peace treaty? Think it will last?

Malachy McCourt: It's a mistake to think that it's a peace treaty. It is an agreement to begin a process toward establishing peace among the various communities in Northern Ireland. It will be a difficult and arduous road, because the people on the extremes of both sides, acting on what they consider to be age-old principles, will try to wreck it by armed conflict. It will be a hard job.

Question: Do you ever keep in contact with your friends from Limerick? Like, what happened to Question Quigley? Did you ever see Freddy Liebowitz?

Malachy McCourt: No, I never had contact with the Liebowitzes. With the others, I don't know what happened to them, but we've met people related to them. We met them at various book signings. I imagine Question Quigley is taking part in this, because we have lots of questions.

Question: I'm dating a Limerick boy. Is there anything I should be warned of?

Malachy McCourt: Watch out for him when he slips into a deep Limerick accent -- you're about to be insulted.

Question: With Ireland caught up, economically, with the rest of western Europe for the first time in its history, do you expect the tradition of at least one son of every family emigrating to the U.S. to disappear? Is yours among the last generations to uphold it?

Malachy McCourt: There is a tradition of wandering that we share with the Jewish folks. It's hard to keep us settled in one place. But I do think that immigration as we know it is at an end. The economic need for it has disappeared for a lot of classes. There's still a lot of poor people in Ireland, but they won't have any choice but to go to England, and they'll have their own set of difficulties there.

AkioBN: Mr. McCourt, that was a lot of fun. Thanks for lending us your time.

Malachy McCourt: Ah well, it was fun for me, too, and thank you so much for inviting me to participate! Blessings on your craniums. A day at a time.

AkioBN: Erin go bragh! Did I say that right?

Malachy McCourt: You did! Ireland forever!

AkioBN: Goodnight.

Malachy McCourt: Goodnight!

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Customer Reviews

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( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2003

    Like laughter in the rain

    Ho,ho, this McCourt fellow is himself and then some. He's what you think of when you hear the phrase, 'Irish wit.' Reading this book is like spending time at a really fun Irish bar just shooting the breeze with a great talker and storyteller. The next pint's on me, Mr. Malachy!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2001

    Bleedin' deadly

    This was an adventure... brilliantly written. A fun story, you'd think this fella a caffler.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2001

    A Boisterous Career Drunk Does Not a Writer Make.

    Having enormously enjoyed his brother's books, I really wanted to like this one- but I couldn't.I think these stories would be just terrific standing around at a bar, but they just don't seem to hold up in this medium.I could only stay with the book about halfway, then I had to move on.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2001

    A joyous account of lust for life!

    Frank McCourt focused on the differences between he and his brother in his first work, 'Angela's Ashes', and how Malachy was always the jollier of the two. Malachy proves this on his own in this wonderful autobiography which is a perfect compliment to his older brother's stories. Whereas 'Ashes' recounts the melancholy times spent in Irish poverty, and ''Tis' is the continuation, written in the same style of bittersweet angst, 'A Monk Swimming' is raucous, lusty, and amazing account of Malachy's arrival in America and life afterward - the drinking, the women, the travels, and the accidental fame, told in the way that only a good-humored Irishman can. McCourt twists the language in such a way that it is nearly ipossible not to laugh, but the wonderful thing about the book is that one is laughing along with him.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2000

    Get's you going with a laugh

    I was looking forward to reading another 'McCourt' book. The beginning chapters had me laughing so hard out loud that I was embarrassed! I truly wanted to appreciate this book. However, the last third of the book does tend to go on. We really did not need to have detail after detail of every trip taken with the gold bars. I kept waiting for more humor but it does not exsist at the end. too bad.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2000

    Irish sure can turn a phrase.!!

    He has terific humor,but always invoved with sex. I wonder how much is true and how much is invented, especially the gold bar bit. Ol barleycorn seems to ruin a lot of Irish lives.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2000

    A Unique Life Story

    This was a vastly different type of work than Frank McCourt's, and I liked it very much. It is better, I think, that Malachy told his own story, in his own way, versus try to take off from Frank's. They are very different people, so their stories could not be the same.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2000

    Light hearted and funny

    For those of you who have read Angelas Ashes, Malachy is child who covers his pain in comedy and laughter. This life story is outragous and funny...unbelievable in its best moments.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2000

    What a Harilous Book

    Malachy McCourt has written THE funniest book I've read in years! Every turn of the page, I was laughing! I couldn't put it down. The funniest part, I thought was when he and Robert Micthum were palling around, with all the vistors to that trailer they were in, such as Frank Sinatra, were making the secne livier. Wonderful story!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 1999

    A Memmorable Memoir

    If you have read his brother's work you are left with the feeling that sommething very good finished too early and that you want more of it. A Monk Swimming does that job wonderfully.

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