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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
"Isn't this a great country altogether?"
Thus ended the astounding writing debut of Frank McCourt, the 1996 bestselling memoir Angela's Ashes. The young Frank had emerged from the sickly bowels of Irish poverty and was on his passage to America, looking out from the Irish Oak at the lights of New York. With these words, McCourt ignited the expectations of millions of readers, who wondered what would happen to this resourceful young man, who seemed to have survived his youth sustained only on the strength of his imagination, his fierce love of language, and the occasional egg.
With 'Tis, McCourt answers these yearnings with the continuation of his memoirs, recounting his life as a young immigrant making his way in New York City. But the hopeful tenor of those closing words is almost immediately doused, as he finds the implied promise of his first slice of lemon meringue pie ("I'm thinking if this is the way they eat in America I'll be fine and fat...") dashed by the reality that an Irishman who has rotten teeth, bad eyes, and no high school diploma has few opportunities in the land of plenty. He finds himself in the lowest of jobs, scrubbing the lobby of a swank hotel, surrounded by the real beneficiaries of America's wealth: the already wealthy.
Thus is the conflict of 'Tis established. In Angela's Ashes, the poverty was endemic: Though there were gradations between families, the seeping grayness of Limerick was democratic. Everyone in young Frank's limited world was familiar with struggle. Real privilege was somethingneverencountered directly, the province exclusively of mysterious Englishmen in books. But in America, there are the girls with tanned legs, the boys with crew cuts and "football shoulders." The privilege is all around, reminding Frank of his position outside it. He is more acutely aware of his poverty than the boy of Angela's Ashes ever had to be.
'Tis, thus, is more about the emotional impact of poverty than about its physical reality. To be sure, Frank is still poor — he describes cheese sandwiches with a reverence that can only be mustered by one who considers them a delicacy — but he is no longer at risk of dying. He generally finds places to sleep and food to eat. But such meager privileges only allow his longings to be directed elsewhere.
He craves the comfort and worry-free lives of the comfortable Americans around him. He wants a girl with whom to share the "excitement." He wants to have healthy eyes, good teeth, the easy past he can never claim. No longer the innocent of the earlier book, he is fully aware of the limitations he cannot control. And the emotions these limitations engender are now the complicated emotions of a young man: envy, despair, shame, occasional rage at his own powerlessness.
But in the midst of the privilege surrounding him, it is telling what Frank covets most: not luxury but an education. He wistfully eyes the textbooks students carry on the subway, wanting the pride it would give him to hold such a book on his lap. Frank in many ways is comfortable in the typical working-class haunts of his countrymen: the docks where he works unloading trucks, the pubs where his forays into drinking veer dangerously close to the habits of his own father (whose heartbreaking drunkenness nearly destroyed the McCourts in the earlier book). But his craving for an education never leaves him, and he manages to get himself accepted to NYU on the GI Bill.
He is baffled by the comfort of his fellow students, who sit in the cafeteria and idle away hours arguing their fierce convictions:
...going to college seems to be a great game with them. When they're not talking about their averages the students argue about the meaning of everything, life, the existence of God, the terrible state of the world, and you never know when someone is going to drop in the one word that gives everyone the deep serious look, existentialism.
Such fervor over abstractions is frivolous to Frank, who has to survive by splitting his time between school and the docks, feeling isolated in both places. At work, his coworkers mock his studies; at school, he feels ashamed of his past and ill prepared to be a college student. The mantle of the outsider settles firmly on his thin shoulders. He wonders why he doesn't get an easy factory job and be done with the struggle.
But through school, and later as a high school teacher, he slowly discovers the legacy his past has afforded him: a rich tapestry of stories that are his and his alone. Truly, the role of outsider is in many ways McCourt's greatest gift. He is an acute observer, and his sometimes suspicious distance allows him the eye for the striking description, the ear for the surprising or melodious phrase. Nothing could befit a writer more.
In one of his earliest NYU classes, the students are asked to select an author they'd like to meet. Frank selects Jonathan Swift: "I'd like to meet him because of Gulliver's Travels. A man with an imagination like that would be a great one to have a cup of tea or a pint with." Frank McCourt does not need imagination to invent his tales: he has lived them. But McCourt's appreciation for the beauty of language — for the stories that litter a life — reminds us of the light that can be reflected off the darkest of details. I'd have a cup of tea or a pint with him any day.
Caitlin Dixon is a freelance writer and filmmaker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.