This McCourt has his own tale to tell Books: Even though Malachy McCourt writes of the same characters as Frank McCourt -- they are brothers, after all, 'A Monk Swimming' has its own redeeming value.

November 02, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Now that he's part of a cottage industry, a family of wildly successful Irish-American storytellers, Malachy McCourt can pause to reflect a little on why it happened and what it means.

Americans, says the 66-year-old author of the best seller "A Monk Swimming" (Hyperion, $23.95), suffer from a lack of gab.

"In the old days, you sat around the fire at night and the storyteller would tell the stories." There would be heroes and kings and ordinary people uplifted by experience.

"These days you have what someone has called the cool fire -- the television -- and late at night the 'sages' and the 'wise men' are there, but it's all jokes. There's no weaving of the tale, there's no uplifting."

And so we need the Irish, with their "profligacy" of language, to give us stories and share their heroes, says McCourt, who will appear tonight at the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington.

His book has gone through eight printings since it came out in June. It is an outrageous tale that begins with McCourt's arrival in New York in 1952, when he was 20, and ends a decade later, when he is broke, divorced and anything but defeated by a life of debauchery, indirection and excess.

McCourt was born in Brooklyn, a year and a month after his now-famous brother Frank, but the family moved back to Ireland after his sister Margaret died at age 7 weeks. Malachy was 3. Frank, Malachy, Michael and Alphie grew up in Ireland; twins Oliver and Eugene died as children in Limerick.

It was Frank McCourt who put the family memories in play. His 1996 memoir, "Angela's Ashes," scoured the hard heart of Depression-era Ireland and left millions of readers weeping from the pity of it.

There are some who say Malachy is merely trading on his brother's fame, and debasing the pity and terror of the angelic "Angela" with the braggery and blarney of a vulgar hedonist. But until "Angela," Frank was a quiet retired schoolteacher in New York. Malachy was The Man -- actor, raconteur, barkeep and bon vivant who bubbled along on charm and alcohol, hobnobbing in New York watering holes with the likes of Ted Kennedy and Peter O'Toole.

He acted on the stage, and appeared in 20 movies. He had been a longshoreman, but in the better years, he owned part of a bar named after him, he had a society wife and they had two children. In the worse years, he was unwelcome in the bars, and he turned to smuggling gold. Whatever he did, the little brother was always larger than life. And when it comes to storytelling, Malachy is clearly to the manner born.

"I love the sound of words," he says. "They have in my mouth almost the texture of nuts."

Here he is on his first experience of inebriation, at age 11: "I was singing from my heart, from my lungs, from every pore of my body, and my song became a paean for everything in the world of God's creation, and my song was an offering to the Most High, and, as He kept Himself invisible, I knew my offering had been accepted, so I soared again through the heavens, higher and high, feeling finally that, should I go any further, I could not come back. With the greatest of reluctance, I returned to earth to find myself alone in the darkness on the dockside.

"Once more I was just a scabby-kneed, snotty-nosed Limerick laner, and still poor ..."

It takes, you would think, some nerve to write with such searing honesty. McCourt accepts no medals for valor. Writing the book, says, was great fun. "I thought it was a rollicking good story. People have used words like 'therapeutic' and 'cathartic,' but really, none of them apply."

"Monk" (the title is from a childhood misapprehension of a phrase in the Catholic Hail Mary, "blessed art thou amongst women" as "a monk swimming") begins where "Angela" leaves off, a period Frank McCourt is also writing about now (that book is scheduled to come out next year). But "Monk" is clearly Malachy's book, its tenor brash, its tone irreverent.

There have been some grumpy reviews from people who seemed to have had personal experience with an alcoholic and didn't find Malachy one bit funny. "W.C. Fields falling flat," sneered the New York Times. "A distressing embarrassment," sniffed the Washington Post.

McCourt, who quit drinking 13 years ago, has said he was never a falling-down drunk. "I was a very dangerous kind of drunk, in that I didn't show it," he told one interviewer.

But to complain about the antics of a sot is to miss the point. Only an ex-sot could write about his experiences with such trenchant humor.

"I thought it was rather obvious [in the book] what was happening, that I was becoming my father," McCourt says. "I didn't need to come out and say it."

Other people have said it for him, however, informing him that his work reveals he became the man he most reviled. "I have to say, oh, thank you so much for telling me," he says.

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