"If you have anything to say, shut up" is perhaps not the best advice to give a fledgeling Pulitzer Prize winner, but that was what his grandma told young Frankie McCourt, on the morning of his first Catholic communion. The place was the ever damp city of Limerick. The decade was the '30s.
Endowed with a quick Irish mouth, Frank McCourt did not maintain silence for more than a minute, but he did with his pen. He waited until he was sixty-six to publish his first book, almost a lifetime later, in New York in 1996. Angela's Ashes (Angela was his mother's name) is a childhood memoir written entirely in the present tense, which includes the high-farce communion scene (McCourt couldn't swallow the host and got "God glued to the roof of his mouth") and a jug-full of other tales centred on the competing Celtic empires of church and family, and that great terrorist Sex, or, as McCourt calls, it "the excitement". A mere year ago, he was the epitome of this joke about two people who meet at a party: "What are you doing now," one asks; "I'm writing a book," says the other; "Yes, neither am I," says the first. But now Angela's Ashes is a reality, and an astonishingly successful one.
At the time of a recent sold-out reading, as the star turn at the inaugural Ottawa International Writers' Festival in September, McCourt had shifted a million and a half hardbacks, enough to put him atop the New York Times listings for months and on a similar rung in Canada and across Europe. He has written the lodestone publishers seek, the oxymoronic "instant classic", and after a full career on a teacher's salary, he is now a rich man.
"My wife and I have decided it might be time to become phoney; we're taking lessons," McCourt said in an interview on the day of the reading. He has a face that could grace an Irish travel brochure, a recitative voice heavy with the New York shade of green, and he has chosen self-mockery as his way of diluting the stigma of sudden wealth and fame. He is, as the Irish say, farting through silk, and enjoying it. And he has made his money by entering, with the eyes of a child, the literature of poverty.
"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive 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."
That's the second paragraph of Angela's Ashes, and it sets the tone for the book, particularly in that second sentence, and even more particularly in that subordinate "of course". Why, indeed, would we bother reading about a happy one? No, McCourt is well aware that we are drawn to stories that enjoy drawing the ill out of idyll. By the time we reach the paragraph's punchline we are smiling at the author's two-fisted salute as the champion of all childhood miseries. There will be no lying in the bathos here, no walks up the garden pathos, and no ennobling hindsight. We will see alcoholism, chronic unemployment, priestly cruelty, infant mortality, death by exhaustion, and, above all, unrelenting poverty, through the eyes of an articulate, unjudging child. So much the better that the child has a straight eye for the common absurdities, as recalled by the sadder but wiser man. In McCourt's own summation, it is not a melodrama; it is "an assemblage of misadventures".
Poverty as an arena for literature is a Victorian, really a Dickensian, invention. After Chaucer, who showed some concern for common folk, the dealings of the nobility were the domain of writers from Jacobean times right through Shakespeare and up till Austen, when the upper middle class took over. Apart from Dickens, the British waited until Orwell went off to Wigan Pier in 1933, and later experimented with being down and out, to discover the lower classes and their empty pockets as suitable reading material. After the war, writers such as John Braine and the much underrated Alan Sillitoe took up the cause. Capturing the poor in novels became a fad, and it has remained so, with the Scotsman James Kelman using it as an undercurrent in the darkly hilarious How Late It Was, How Late and taking the Booker in 1995. Indeed the Scots have cornered the European poverty market at the moment by mixing it with its spin-off industry, drugs, as in Trainspotting.
North America, by virtue of the Depression, was a couple of decades ahead of the British. James Agee and John Steinbeck, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Grapes of Wrath, came at the subject from opposite ends. Agee's masterpiece, a documentary about a handful of dustbowl families, was and still is a damn hard read. It sold only six hundred copies in its first printing, and had no real effect on its times. Steinbeck, on the other hand, put the story out as fiction, gradually encasing his hero in nobility as big business stuck it to the little guy. It was high drama and it worked, and that schtick has carried on down to writers such as Russell Banks and Rick Bragg, whose wonderful recent memoir of white Southern poverty is called All Over But the Shoutin'. Meanwhile a similar, separate strain was running through black poverty books, from the doorstep of Uncle Tom's Cabin to the stone steps of the Harlem Renaissance and out to the house in the opening line of Toni Morrison's Beloved.
Across the border in Canada, the subject had trouble arising, partly because the publishing industry was so slim, but mainly because very few of those suffering the deepest poverty, the Natives, were book writers. The troubled Frederick Grove's The Search for America, published in 1927, was an honourable effort, but things really got going in a serious way with Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute in 1947, and Margaret Laurence's descriptions of Native hardship in The Diviners. (An extended sojourn in the Prairies seems to leave a lasting impression of poverty on our authors.)
The keys to McCourt's reinvigorating approach to making poverty palatable for North Americans in the '90s lie in his Irishness (although he has lived in New York three-quarters of his life), his choice of childhood as his stage, and the comedic portrayal of his characters. He is a merciless skewerer of those figures outside his family that hold dominion over the survival of his mother and brothers, some of whom make it and some of whom don't. "Even though we were all terrified of the schoolmasters and the priests, we realized that they were all exaggerated characters," McCourt said. In those fierce clerics and teachers, as they storm through Angela's Ashes, the descendants of Mr. Bumble and Mr. Pecksniff can clearly be seen, characters who take them themselves seriously and yet need only be accurately portrayed to come off as foolish. They are punctured and relieved of their hot air by the sharp gaze of a young boy.
This is the same field of vision employed by J.D. Salinger with Holden Caulfield, by Roddy Doyle with Paddy Clarke, by Shyam Selvadurai and Michael Ondaatje with themselves, and by E.L. Doctorow with Edgar Altschuler. (Doctorow presides over the New York neighbourhood next to the one McCourt was born in, before leaving for Ireland aged four.) The resulting viewpoint can convert tears of laughter to those of sorrow on the turn of a page, and indeed that is the licence the writer is free to exploit when writing about poordom. The greatest exponent of this in this century is not a writer, although his autobiography described the harrowing scarcity of his childhood. He was a film-maker, Charlie Chaplin. Like McCourt, Chaplin knew that no child is guilty of its own poverty, but that many in authority are, and that the best form of revenge is to ridicule them.
There is no doubt, though, that the core appeal of Angela's Ashes is its Irishness. Has there ever been a nation that so successfully turned the language of the conqueror back against it? McCourt puts it like this: "Their language was all we had to fight them with; giving us their grammar was like sending us bullets for our guns. Besides, Ireland is a bare country, there's not much to make art with besides words. We don't have a great tradition of visual arts, but we can write." Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, and Beckett wielded English with a rare skill, each in their turn able to mock the language's supposed experts-and in all but one case, they paid for their skill with exile to France. Add in the present North American infatuation with all things Celtic, the Chieftains and the Lords of the Dance, and the steamrollering popularity of McCourt's high-stepping verbal jigs and reels becomes almost inevitable.
Angela's Ashes is not, of course, the first Irish memoir of a miserable childhood that carries great charm. Christy Brown in My Left Foot and Christopher Nolan in Under the Eye of the Clock are worthy companions, both replete with the redeeming triumph of turning tragedy not into hope, but into compassion for themselves and others. They do so by using what we had best call the autobiographical novel, the equivalent of movies that begin with "Based on a true story".
Actually McCourt's true Irish forerunner (although they are the same age) is Edna O'Brien, herself born and raised near Limerick, although she too lives abroad. (It is the second generation after her, the one with passports to the European Union, that has chosen to stay.) In 1978 O'Brien published Mother Ireland, a dissertation on the effect living there had on her, and it is a blueprint for the later generation of Browns, Nolans, Doyles, and McCourts.
McCourt, a man who taught English literature to several generations of New Yorkers, is well aware of the history of the literature of poverty. "I've become a connoisseur of it. The best I've come across is Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier. People say, oh, yes, poverty, Dickens. But no, I don't think he gets it. With him there is always an optimistic glow," he says. "There is a particular stink to poverty, like a body left in a room for three days. Even when I go back to Ireland now, in certain houses and lanes, the smell is still there. It's still there."
(It will be interesting to see how McCourt does in his next book, which leaves the Irish sod and continues the story in New York, where he takes up teaching, marries three times, practises anger, and eventually reaches what he calls the High Ground. "It's really a book about the teacher as learner, and I want to be a bit more objective with myself. It's really a story of gradually clearing bewilderment.")
Now, compare and contrast that earlier McCourtian paragraph about outstanding miserable childhoods with this one. It's from On the Edge, a documentary book by the Canadian film-maker and author Lindalee Tracey (who is of Irish descent), published in 1993. Tracey travelled across Canada interviewing the poor, stepping into their lives for a while and accumulating an attitude that can only be described as pissed-off. The experience leaves her pissed-off at the terrible ability of politicians to consider the rich their true constituents; they govern compassion and administer greed, when it should be the other way around. As Tracey puts it,
"Poverty and bad luck were recurring patterns in the heavy weave of small-town, rural Canada, at least until the war years. My grandmother's children grew up hungry, with swollen feet from wearing shoes too small for them. But survival was embroidered with religion, duty, familial and almost tribal allegiances, small decencies and self-esteem. Poverty was gnawing, but the poor belonged somewhere, were good at something. There was shame, there always is, but not the glare of economic disparity, the television-induced hunger and covetousness."
Tracey's is a well-meaning effort, like James Agee's, but it is only via the first-hand experience, the semi-fictional memoir or the first-person novel, that the emotion of poverty can be transmitted, and compassion engendered. Perhaps the only place in Canada that could launch such a tale would be a Native reserve, where the language of the conqueror has yet to be fired back in a bestseller. Give it time. (Newfoundland is, at first blush, the obvious choice-it has the pedigree, priesthood, and poverty to suit-but of late, in works by the likes of Kenneth Harvey and Howard Norman, a darker take on the island's depression has appeared.)
So far, and it's only just got going, the Native literature shelf isn't too long; people such as Tom King, Ruby Slipperjack, Jeanette Armstrong, and Tomson Highway sit well on it, but a book with the salespower of Angela's Ashes has yet to be written. If the great, redeeming book about Native poverty is still on its way, and it's to be hoped that it is, it will be written by someone looking back not in anger, but in understanding. McCourt, asked why he waited so long, said, "I wasn't fit enough, ripe enough or intelligent enough." A pause. "And I was too angry." McCourt doesn't bite any more; yes, he still bares his teeth, especially whenever priests are mentioned, but anger never clouds his pen. He has put it through the filter of distance and humour, and written one of the great books about the misadventure of growing up poor.
Frank McCourt was recently invited back to Limerick, to receive an honorary doctorate from the university. In his acceptance speech (acceptance both by him and by the city that he has made famous for something other than five-line bawdy poems), he said, "Well now, you leave Limerick with your arse hanging out of your pants, and you come back and they give you a robe to cover it." As the rich get so much richer and the poor get increasingly ignored, surely there are other robes waiting to be donned. The times could use a few more McCourts, before compassion loses all its shareholders.
Phil Jenkins, who lives near Wakefield, Quebec, is the author of An Acre of Time (Macfarlane Walter & Ross).