Escape from Losers' Lane

John Walsh meets Frank McCourt: A year ago, you hadn't even heard of him. But his first novel, `Angela's Ashes', has won the Pulitzer Prize and is now being made into a film...
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A guy came up to Frank McCourt in O'Mahoney's bookshop, Limerick, last week as he was signing copies of Angela's Ashes, the best-selling memoir of his tragic childhood in the city's slum-infested lanes. The man thrust a photograph under McCourt's nose, a crumpled snap of the writer's junior class at Leamy's National School. "D'you know what that is?" he demanded. Yeah, said McCourt, it's my class picture. "I was in your class," said the man. "D'you know which one I am?" I dunno, said McCourt, "I've been out of the country for nearly 50 years." "You!" said the man with sudden violence, "You're a disgrace to Ireland, and the Church and your mother and - here's what I think of your book" - and, with that, he snatched up a paperback of Angela's Ashes, tore it in half, then ripped the two halves to pieces that settled like leaves on the floor of O'Mahoney's bookshop.

Mr McCourt is getting used to being attacked by Irish patriots and Irish- American expatriates who are embarrassed by the experiences so graphically recalled in his book. Though it picked up, on publication last autumn, an unprecedented flood of tear-stained reviews, got serialised in the New Yorker, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and the National Book Award, and hit the No 1 slot in the US bestseller list, and got its author lionised and dragged on to chat-shows from Brooklyn to Ballygobackwards, and is now being filmed - despite all this, his pitiless truth-telling hasn't been received with undiluted rapture.

"I've had letters in America from fundamentalist Christians, saying I was blasphemous and sacrilegious," he rasps, "and letters from County Clare saying I'm a disgrace. I've been attacked by women in shops for abusing my old school..." Did people think his portrayal of late-Thirties Ireland was false, or that he shouldn't have painted it so accurately? He considered. "When Ireland was occupied by the English, the Irish were like American blacks. They'd present a front to the British, to the white man. You didn't tell the secrets. You didn't betray the tribe. So writers are now regarded as traitors, because we let it all hang out, and they think we're betraying ourselves to the English. But I love the indignant letters. I'm keeping a file..."

If you haven't read Angela's Ashes, let me remind you what all the fuss is about. It's a relentless, if jaunty, chronicle of poverty, degradation and want. It tells how Frank McCourt was conceived in 1930 Brooklyn during a knee-trembler involving Malachy McCourt from Antrim, former IRA jailbird, and Angela Sheehan from Limerick. Forced into a shotgun wedding, they produced four children in four years: Frank, Malachy junior, and the twins Eugene and Oliver. It was the height of the Depression and they were always poor. Malachy drank away his sporadic earnings, but gave it up when his daughter, Margaret, was born. She died two months later. Malachy fell off the wagon; Angela became catatonic with grief. Supportive neighbours called in her domineering cousins, who packed the family off to Ireland and, they supposed, a new life far from the New York Depression. What the hapless McCourts found there was infinitely worse. Denied work in Belfast, or help from the Dublin IRA, Malachy, Angela and the children fetched up in Limerick with Angela's Ada Doom-like mother and shrewish sister, Aggie. A one-room flat with a flea-ridden mattress brought disease. Oliver died of a fever. Eugene, aged one, kept a pathetic vigil at the window for his departed twin, then he too died of pneumonia six months later. The family relocated to the worryingly-named Roden Lane, where the next-door lavatory turned out to be the lane's communal privy, and where the damp made the ground floor uninhabitable in winter. The family lived upstairs (which they bleakly christen "Italy"), only descending back to "Ireland" when the weather allowed.

The book settles into a steady rhythm of hunger, sickness, Catholic bullying and begrudging charity. There are chits from the St Vincent de Paul Society, visits to the Labour Exchange and trips to the Fever Hospital (where Frank is diagnosed with typhoid), and ceaseless, repetitive waits for the father to come home before all the dole money is pissed away. Frantic women beg for the sweepings from the floor of Rank's Flour Mills. Children trawl the Dock Road in the rain searching for lumps of coal spilled from lorries. Two more children are born...

Amazingly, this grim tale whizzes along like an unusually entertaining low-life soap opera because of McCourt's unpolished but lively style - a vivid, genial surge, part-Dickens, part-Joyce, full of wonderful conversations in stage-Irish demotic. So densely remembered is it, so filled with suspiciously picturesque scenes (such as Frank carrying a pig's head home for Christmas dinner, with the brown paper falling off it until the porcine head is clamped to his chest like a decapitated martyr's - very Fellini) that some people wondered if McCourt might have invented or embroidered the details.

"All of this... happened," he says with a hurt tone. "I remember something Gore Vidal said, about his book Palimpsest, that an autobiography tries to tell the facts of your life, while a memoir tries to give the impressions of your life. There were so many dramatic things in my life, I only put in a fraction of what I could recall. Scenes like my mother having to go to the dispensary to apply for public assistance when my father deserted us. My mother begging for scraps at the door of the priest's house. My mother trying to throw herself into the grave of Eugene, on a louring day, and her shrieking like a banshee, with jackdaws flying around, and I was thinking, Would she really allow herself to be buried and leave us? That was all I had to remember..."

Readers of the book look at McCourt today, and consider what a survivor he is. A good-looking man, in the James Stewart mould but shorter, he is deathly pale, with snow-white hair and hurt brown eyes. He speaks softly (with a pronounced Irish accent still) but with a palpable rage not far beneath the surface. He radiates an ineffable weariness, as if the release of his bottled-up, Gogolian remembrances had left him exhausted rather than elated. "The book wasn't meant to be therapeutic," he says. "And it didn't turn out that way. Where there's memory, there's no catharsis..." It's clear he is still deeply traumatised by the past. He is quite capable of weeping at bookshop readings, where his wife Ellen chooses passages for him to read. But he is good company - exasperated by literary symposia, and by those who want to claim him as a post-Joyce artiste, fascinated by Irish conversational idioms (how, for instance, asking a grown-up "Why?" would elicit the reply, "Why? No why. Every why"), and good at mimicking the accents of the downtrodden Irish Catholic matron. "You know how the old Irish confessional used to have penitents in boxes on either side of the priest? I used to listen to married women saying [adopts reedy Mrs Doyle-from-Father-Ted accent], `I didn't do me wifely duty, father. I had a bad headache,' and the priest saying, `That's no excuse...'"

McCourt's father is a constant puzzle. A feckless, sentimental drunkard, who thought nothing of resting his pint on the white coffin he was taking home to bury a dead son in, he is still granted a lot of charm. Sometimes, he makes things all right. He loves his children, but he deserts them when he leaves for England during the war and gradually drops out of the story. Did he think of him as a hero or a villain?

"A hero," says McCourt, without a second's thought. "He was a hero even though he didn't bring home the bacon, the goods, the money, even though he drank our lives away. When he was sober, he was the perfect father. But when he went to England, that was it. He didn't send us money, he left us literally to starve. And we were deprived of a father in the house, which was worst of all."

Malachy's own father was a bungling IRA activist and setter of booby- traps. He became obsessed with the romantic past. In his cups, he'd get his children out of bed, sing "Kevin Barry" and "Roddy McCorley", and make the shivering tots promise to die for Ireland. I ask if the recent events in Drumcree have awakened any Republican echoes in the son's heart. "None. I despise them all, on both sides, because they're so stupid and inhuman. They're just gangs now. The noble cause has gone out the window. How can they do this, when all they need to do is behave like Gandhi or Martin Luther King? Why can't they adopt these tactics instead of causing revulsion all over the world? Why can't they be smart?"

After his father left, the family hit rock-bottom. They were evicted from their damp death-trap after they started pulling planks off the wall for firewood. Frank left school at 12, lived with his grandmother, delivered newspapers with his mad uncle, became a telegram boy and resolved to save up his fare back to the US.

"I arrived in New York as damaged goods, at 19," he says. "And I have to ask, Who did it to me? And to my brothers and everyone else - if you go to New York now, the amount of drinking among the young Irish is massive. And the violence. Where does it come from?" Does he blame the Catholic church? Or his father? Or poverty? "All of the above. It's a state of mind you get into. Because we weren't allowed the luxury of introspection. Freud apparently once said, `There's one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is no use whatsoever: the Irish. Because they' - we - `are so brainwashed by Catholicism.' I was completely ill-equipped for American life, for any kind of life. I wasn't illiterate, just ill-educated, in every department. I had no self-esteem. It was hard for me to make friends. It was hard for me to approach girls. I thought of myself as a species of scarecrow, with bad hair, bad teeth, bad skin." What he needed was "some sense of accomplishment in some area" and he found it, at last, in teaching, with a BA degree from New York University, and a job in a Staten Island high school, one of the worst schools in the Big Bagel. "People said, don't go near a vocational high school. They'll kill you. But I survived, because there was an empathy with the kids. I adapted to them, rather than the other way around."

An odd air of fated hopelessness hangs over McCourt's family. His three brothers came to join him in America, and all fell into alcoholism. His mother joined him in 1959 and stayed till her death in 1982. Was she happy? "No. I think she expected to find one big happy family, but it wasn't. She wanted us to marry a nice Irish Catholic girl, but none of us did. She used to say, `Every time I cross the floor, I'm trippin' over little Jews and Protestants.' And the children would say, `Dad, what was Nanna doin' to me in the middle of the night pourin' water on my head?' because she'd try to baptise everything..."

By the first of his three wives, McCourt had a daughter of his own, whom he named Margaret after his dead sister. He wanted the world for her. "I had a dream of being a Kodak Daddy. I thought I'd have this child, who'd go to kindergarten and graduate from there with a little mortar board and gown, and I'd be there, click click, and she'd go to elementary school and graduate and I'd be there again, click click, proud father, then she'd go to a high school (click click), then one of those sweet little colleges in New England, and she'd marry a quarterback called Chuck with powerful shoulders and terrific teeth and they'd have 2.3 children that I'd be proud of, and I'd be click click click all the way." What happened? "She became a Dead-head. She took off at 16, following the Grateful Dead across America, and I followed her trying to pluck her out of situations. When Jerry Garcia died last year, there was one man in America who didn't mourn, and that was me."

Nothing has gone right for McCourt's family and relationships - until now, as he accepts the cheers of the readerly multitudes, and glows in the company of his nice Californian wife, Ellen. He has learnt that you mostly never get what you want, that your most glamorous dreams are probably doomed. He wants Stephen Rea to play his father in the movie, because "he's from the North. He has the perfect hangdog look". And to play his mother? "I dunno about the mother. Probably not Julia Roberts..."