Monday, July 20, 2009

The 66-year old overnight sensation, RIP

It's a bit rare for retired New York City schoolteachers to become overnight sensations. It's a bit surprising when the sensation in question has been to your house, had a few with your dad, and you played with his daughter when you were kids. And Mom and Dad STILL had to buy my copy of his book as a Xmas present! That teacher was Frank McCourt, whose unorthodox teaching methods and overflowing classes were notorious in the City's elite Stuyvesant High School.

In 1930, Angela and Malachy McCourt had their first child, Francis. He was the product of a knee-trembler -- a drunken fit of passion that resulted in Malachy and Angela's marriage and led eventually to (at least) five more pregnancies, six more kids and a completely failed life together until the early 1940s. Their time together is aptly described in one of the most arresting passages in non-fiction literature:

When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.

That's the second paragraph of Angela's Ashes, the memoir that transformed an unknown retired English teacher into a media and publishing sensation around his 66th birthday. Frank McCourt was a colleague of PaMonk from 1972-1987, and was the oldest of the seven McCourt children, of whom four boys (Frank, Malachy Jr., Alfie and Michael) survived into adulthood, but his sister and a pair of twin brothers died before age 6. Angela's Ashes, McCourt's tragicomic tale of growing up in Depression-era Limerick, Ireland, is by turns sad, horrific, and hilarious.

And serendipitous. McCourt had wanted to write about his childhood for years, and when he finally found his voice and constructed his manuscript, his timing was perfect. In 1996, a tremendous international publishing convention in Germany had as its theme Irish culture. The word of mouth for McCourt's memoir was fantastic, and the momentum continued as the book became a bestseller (4,000,000 in hardback sales), Pulitzer Prize winner, and National Book Critics Circle Award recipient. Here's the rave review from Michiko Kakutani.

McCourt himself was a media darling. From Letterman to Charlie Rose to Larry King to talk shows throughout the nation, the charming, understated and slight aging gentleman with the soft Irish lilt was the perfect guest -- profound, funny and sharp-witted. And he had more reason to show his face on TV almost immediately after the initial book momentum died down -- the Alan Parker adaptation of the memoir into a movie (far inferior to the book). McCourt wrote two more memoirs, the introspective and self-pitying 'Tis and the episodic Teacher Man, neither of which attained the critical, financial or literary success of Ashes. By the publication of those books, however, McCourt was a commercial publishing hit and a millionaire.

Not bad for a retired teacher who stole apples and milk to survive childhood and help feed his family, struggled to obtain the qualifications he needed to become a teacher in New York City because he'd quit schooling at 13 to help his family, and taught in some of the best and worst schools in the City.

Yesterday he died as a result of metastatic melanoma.

Frank McCourt, RIP.

No comments: