Posted by CahirO at 7/20/2009 12:31 AM EDT
Like many people I never met Frank McCourt. I don’t think I was ever even in the same room with him (which is unusual, in my line of work I’ve met almost every contemporary Irish writer), but somehow I feel like I know him, because his writing is so vivid, and so deeply felt.
He was, as they say, a very private man. He was also an internationally celebrated one, for good reason: "Angela’s Ashes," his life’s work, has the power to stop you in your tracks with its narrative force. Your jaw drops and your sides shake with laughter, often on the same page. This is no small achievement.
If the three pillars of Irish life in the 20 century were the State, the Church and Mammy, then McCourt had harsh things to say about all three, driving romantic Irish nationalists to near apoplexy for daring to expose the philistinism and self-interest at their roots.
I don’t know how he survived it all, either; I don’t know how he carried that much neglect and sorrow and casual destruction within him, for so long without imploding; certainly I would never have suspected that it would all somehow be transformed alchemically into a tale so furiously funny that it will outlast us all.
But McCourt’s greatest achievement, I believe, was finding the inner strength to endure the affronts to his personhood, his dignity, his idea of himself, though the course of an impoverished Irish Catholic childhood that seemed designed to smother his potential.
America helped him profoundly. It took him out of himself and placed him back in life,. It provided him with a host of alternate endings, it even hinted at brighter tomorrows. For a man like McCourt this was all it took: just the prospect of a better day. It seemed revolutionary.
I’m glad he came to New York, because I know what a balm it can be for weary souls. I know how this city embraces the once-bitten and the twice-shy. He made his home among such people naturally and he bided his time, producing a swan song late in life that contained such power and unexpected sweetness that it will resonate for centuries.
What a life, what a story, what a man.