Friday , March 1 2024

Book Review: ‘Tis by Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt’s second memoir, ‘Tis, isn’t as good as its predecessor, Angela’s Ashes, but it’s still a moving and impressive work. McCourt’s wit and memories remain amusing and touching in this second memoir.

As McCourt himself describes here, there was quite the backlash against him after Angela’s Ashes became so popular. Part of the backlash was from other authors who are probably jealous about the attention and acclaim McCourt received. There was also skepticism that some of his memoir was fictional.

Ashes ended with McCourt, as a young Irish man, moving to America. There is no way for the stories of his 20s and 30s in ‘Tis to compare to the appalling tales he shares of his earlier years in Ashes.

This, for example, is what happens during his first communion, as he describes in Ashes:

It stuck.

I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master’s voice, Don’t let that host touch your teeth for if you bite God in two you’ll roast in hell for eternity. I tried to get God down with my tongue but the priest hissed at me, Stop that clucking and get back to your seat. God was good. He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner.

Then after his “first communion breakfast”:

The food churned in my stomach. I gagged. I ran to her backyard and threw it all up. Out she came.

Look at what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body and blood of Jesus. I have God in me backyard. What am I goin’ to do? I’ll take him to the Jesuits for they know the sins of the Pope himself.

She dragged me through the streets of Limerick. She told the neighbors and passing strangers about God in her backyard. She pushed me into the confession box.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s a day since my last confession.

A day? And what sins have you committed in a day, my child?

I overslept. I nearly missed my First Communion. My grandmother said I have standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair. I threw up my First Communion breakfast. Now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.

The priest is like the First Confession priest. He has the heavy breathing and the choking sounds.

Ah … ah … tell your grandmother to wash God away with a little water and for your penance say one Hail Mary and one Our Father. Say a prayer for me and God bless you, my child.

Grandma and Mam were waiting close to the confession box. Grandma said, Were you telling jokes to that priest in the confession box? If ’tis a thing I ever find out you were telling jokes to Jesuits I’ll tear the bloody kidneys outa you. Now what did he say about God in my backyard?

He said wash Him away with a little water, Grandma.
Holy water or ordinary water?
He didn’t say, Grandma.
Well, go back and ask him.
But, Grandma …

She pushed me back into the confessional.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it’s a minute since my last confession.
A minute! Are you the boy that was just here?
I am, Father.
What is it now?
My grandma says, Holy water or ordinary water?
Ordinary water, and tell your grandmother not to be bothering me again.
I told her, Ordinary water, Grandma, and he said don’t be bothering him again.
Don’t be bothering him again. That bloody ignorant bogtrotter.

And ‘Tis, overall, does indeed fall short by comparison. Whereas in Ashes McCourt tells tales of sleeping in mattresses with fleas and ticks, in ‘‘Tis he complains about girlfriends angry with him for getting drunk. Some of the stories in Ashes make readers laugh and cry simultaneously, but some of the personal excesses described in ‘‘Tis just fall short by comparison.

McCourt also irks this reviewer by using some personal descriptions repeatedly. He describes his diseased eyes as “two piss holes in the snow” on at least five occasions, for example. But some parts of the book almost make up for those shortfalls.

For example, anyone who felt inferior to others while in college will be touched by McCourt’s memories of his college days. In one story, he tries to avoid speaking in class because he fears his classmates will laugh at his accent or pay more attention to his Irish brogue than to his words. And when a teacher is moved by a story he writes about his poor life in Ireland, he worries that the rest of the class will find him depressing.

Ultimately, about halfway through the book, McCourt gets a job as a teacher and has to grapple with the age-old question of how to educate a group of teenagers more interested in having fun than having a weighty debate about the merits of James Joyce. This is where the book truly sings and entertains.

Overall, though, the book is uneven and less disturbing than his first memoir.

One of the moving parts of Angela’s Ashes is that readers are left feeling as if their problems and life’s tragedies pale in comparison to McCourt’s. The problems described in ‘Tis–racism, poverty, an alcoholic father–are less shocking. And more familiar.

Put another way, it’s hard to imagine having to sleep in a bed infested with rats and other living creatures, but reading Ashes, you feel you can almost understand how awful that must have been. In ‘Tis–a word he uses throughout conversation in the book–his descriptions about drinking too much or wanting companionship are all too familiar as to be almost boring.

’Tis is still an interesting, well-written book, but it’s less enjoyable than and not the excellent work that Angela’s Ashes was.

Here’s a sample, underwhelming excerpt:

Her husband was Italian and he really knew how to cook but she lost him in the war.

Waw. That’s what she says. She really means war but she’s like all Americans who don’t like to say “r” at the end of a word. They say caw instead of car and you wonder why they can’t pronounce words the way God made them.

I like the lemon meringue pie but I don’t like the way Americans leave out the “r” at the end of a word.

You can only read so many commentaries about the funny way Americans talk before it becomes as common in a memoir as, well, lemon meringue pie itself.

McCourt’s new book, Teacher Man, focuses on his work as a teacher. I hope the book, released this week, will resemble his first memoir more than the second.

An earlier version of this review appeared at Mindjack.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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