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The International Writers Magazine
: Book Review

‘Tis by Frank McCourt
Dan Schnieder Review

I finally got around to reading Frank McCourt’s 1999 memoir follow up to his 1996 mega-selling Angela’ Ashes called ‘Tis- which was the last one word chapter in Ashes. There are similarities and differences between the two books. Of course, the protagonist is the same- Frank McCourt, but the mís-en-scene has changed to America (New York City), from Ireland.



Also the same is FM’s relentless faux Irish Bumpkin voice to describe himself. Manifestly an intelligent man it is odd why FM feels a need to show himself in such a light. It goes beyond self-deprecating into the realm of the bizarre, if not masochistic. There are many passages or revelations in ‘Tis with the feel such as ‘Oh, imagine me, a little bogtrotter, here in the big city- what a thing!’ While this worked well in AA where FM was a child, in‘Tis it kind of grates on the reader because FM is now an adult and the airs veer on the silly. On the plus side the book is al ot better edited than AA - which is odd. Since Ashes was FM’s first book one would think that editors would have strengthened the book. The first 2/3s of Ashes - which deals with FM’s first six years of misery- should have been cut from 300 to 100 pages and the last 150 pages- which deal with the next dozen or so years- should have been doubled. Far more happens top FM than mere Irish blarney & infant mortality. The scene in Ashes where FM loses his cherry to a tubercular girl is writing at its finest- but it lasts a mere page and a 1/2. A good editor would have told FM there is the meat of a tale.

‘Tis is a much more evenly edited book and the anecdotes of FM’s various jobs, his romances, his rise to public school teacher, humorous anecdotes, and ending with the deaths of his mother and father, works well - almost too well, though, as ‘Tis’s major flaw is that events seem to occur too quickly, without proper context or meditation on them. The book covers about 36 years - or twice as many as Ashes- yet some of the better parts of Ashes were the non-pity me meditations on life. Which brings me to a flaw that twines its way through both books - FM seems to revel in his misery. Not just in his words in these two books, but in interviews I’ve seen with him. As I’ve led a life, that I’m memoiring, that by most standards makes FM’s life seem a picnic, I wonder if it’s merely this self-pitying stance which was what touched such a deep chord in so many? If so, I’m in trouble, because my memoirs are a brisk, compelling- yet also meditative- read.

Another factor is that ‘Tis- vis-à-vis Ashes- has less immediate appeal to casual readers, for it does not deal with life or death poverty. Yet, there are characters in this book that are far more appealing- as characters, not persons. In Ashes too many of the Irish folk descended into stereotypes. It was as if FM felt he needed to appeal to a lowest common denominator to gain mass appeal. ‘Tis has a number of actual memorable characters- not caricatures. An older black co-worker named Horace, whom FM looks up to as a father figure, leaves an impression- but is quickly discarded after a few poignant scenes. There are other characters who are built up only to be left dangling- with less development- notably FM’s siblings, who make cameos - at best - in his life. Even more disturbing is FM’s own wife. While we get some compelling descriptions of her during their on again/off again courtship, little is made of her after their marriage, save that they had a child together and later divorced. While FM may not want to go into every detail of his marriage’s failure by not doing so with some detail his wife is shown as a one dimensional character and his divorce as a mystery. What could have occurred that would have been so embarrassing to them that FM would not want to discuss it as openly as he did his early youth? Or - was he threatened by his ex - with libel or defamation?

In ‘Tis we get some anecdotes about his life as a teacher and the attitudes of public school officials, students, and parents that potentially could have been good reading, but FM - oddly - seems to lapse into a bit of romanticism about those times. I went to public school in New York only a decade or so after many of the tales spun by FM so I know that much of what he relates is very buffed up. Again, why? If Ashes' success was so based on the misery factor it would seem that dealing with some of the worst the NYC public school system could dredge up would leave him rife with possibilities. Yet, again, he refrains. In Ashes FM seemed to indulge in both inner and outer misery, yet in ‘Tis he goes full bore only on the inner wrecks - the outer world is a hazy place that seems to frighten him, and rob him of some of the potentially better tales of his life.

Despite the relative ease of his life, compared to Ashes, FM seems to spend an inordinate amount of time just whining with no cause. This would not be a problem if FM used this quality for a higher purpose in a bildungsroman - but ‘Tis is not such a beast. It’s almost as if FM wrote the book from a far place hermetically sealed off from himself, with emotions later dubbed in, but a bit off (like a Godzilla film) because he has not properly reflected long nor hard enough on his life. It’s as if he’s trying to convince himself of the myth of ‘Frank McCourt’. Having recently read The Great Gatsby for the first time I was struck by how similar a voice FM has in ‘Tis, towards his past self, is with the voice of that novel’s narrator - Nick Carraway- towards the titular character. Whereas this technique works well in Gatsby because it allows a reader an almost scientific detachment from the events, in ‘Tis FM does not allow this for he deliberately hazes events and characters. Part of this is due to the book probably being too compressed and rushed in to print to coincide with the release of the film Angela’s Ashes, but most of it is due to FM’s understanding of human nature (& himself) not measuring up to his lyrical ability with words.

This is the basic difference between the two books- Ashes is too bloated & ‘Tis too compressed,Ashes has lesser tales, but FM explicates them better. In short, Ashes has some literature-worthy events that are given short-shrift, but ‘Tis is a series of vignettes about a very average life that’s made a bit better in the telling. Ashes has been way overpraised, and many are already readying its spot in the literary canon, but ‘Tis, despite many manifest flaws, is a better book- albeit only slightly.

Yet, I cannot help but wonder what might have been done with these tales had FM first cut his teeth on a few novels, then mastered prose well enough to really hit a couple of home runs. Oh well- here’s what we’re left with: on a scale of 1-100 Angela’s Ashes rates about a 75-80 while ‘Tis is in the 80-85 range. Somewhere, though, the bell rings in at 100, & Angela McCourt takes her place in literature- it’s just not in this life, either.

© Dan Schneider, The Best in Poetica seeks great poems & essays
September 2004

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