Book review: From a town of ashes to a city of gilt

'Tis: a memoir by Frank McCourt HarperCollins, pounds 17.99, 385pp
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The Independent Culture
WRITING A sequel to Angela's Ashes was a risky proposition. A critical success and international best-seller, it was also among the first of the "new memoirs", in a form coupling fictional techniques with autobiography. Frank McCourt's decision to proceed with a second tranche of his life history could have been either brave or misguided. 'Tis is a bit of both.

Circumstances are not as dire as in Angela's Ashes, nor as blackly funny. There is nothing comparable to that stunning image of the two glasses of stout atop the baby's white coffin. But the scope is broader. This account of Frank's adventures in New York is also a social documentary. If Angela's Ashes was born of the Great Depression, 'Tis evokes the postwar boom and US ascendency.

Frank finds the Irish an object of universal prejudice. "What would you do with yourself if you weren't Irish?" chirps a young lady. Charmed, people ask, "Do I detect a brogue?" But he can't get a teaching job because of his accent. Fortunately, Frank has lost none of his naivety, generous spirit or quick wit. Which is just as well, because he has to learn a lot.

The book begins on board a ship to New York. Only 18, with rotten teeth and a chronic eye infection, Frank is homeless, jobless and nearly broke. Moreover, he is the unwilling focus of the attentions of a lascivious priest. Through the old reprobate's machinations at Democratic Party headquarters, he lands a job as a cleaner in the glitzy Biltmore Hotel. Here he discovers a painful awareness of class and ethnicity. Yet he longs to be "a real American" with perfect teeth and worships the "golden girls" who despise his position. Naturally, he later marries one of them.

Alberta is straight out of his wildest dreams. She's an Episcopalian, she's beautiful, bright and dead boring. It's years before he discovers the void beneath her gilded surface.

Liberated from the Biltmore by a hilarious stint in the army, Frank rises to the rank of company clerk through his "powerful typing". Meanwhile his Mam, the long-suffering Angela, is still in Limerick with his brothers Malachy, Michael and Adolphus. Their miserable slum existence is improving thanks to Frank's cheques. Mam has separated from their alcoholic father who has slunk back North, scorned, with good reason, by all the family.

Soon the dashing Malachy is spreading his feathers in New York. He opens a bar that is an overnight sensation, catapulting him into celebrity. Unlike his brother, Frank is forced to travel the long route to his dreams. Holding to his unshakable faith in education, he enrols at New York University on the GI Bill.

The result of his labours is an eight-year sentence in McKee's Vocational and Technical High School. Here McCourt produces his best material as he patiently contends with teenage hooligans. He still carries the scars of Catholicism, believing his sins to be so heinous that only a bishop or cardinal could absolve them. He suffers the immigrant's schizophrenia, envying those who don't carry "ethnic hyphens". Above all, he's convinced everyone knows more than he does. (Hence his sharp eyes and ears.) When there are "dark clouds in his head" he's homesick for Limerick - proof that one can miss even a terrible life in a terrible place.

McCourt's style is direct, relaxed and unpretentious. The problem with 'Tis is the structure. Perhaps because the end of struggle means the end of drive, he runs out of fuel. His humour grows out of adversity and loses its bite once there's a little comfort and peace.

What rescues 'Tis from entropy are its marvellous set-pieces, delicious humour and an outstanding collection of loonies. McCourt has a genius for mimicry, and his characters seem to leap off the page.

The ashes of Angela are at last returned to a Limerick graveyard and scattered by the sons she nurtured and enraged. There has been a last- minute reconciliation between her and erring Dad, and Frank remains entwined with his boisterous family. Which only confirms his astute observation that contention is better than loneliness.

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