McCourt's Angela sequel: Hibernian defamation

September 05, 1999|By Paul R. McHugh | Paul R. McHugh,Special to the Sun

" 'Tis: A Memoir," by Frank McCourt. Scribner. 367 pages. $26.

Frank McCourt's "'Tis" is the sequel to "Angela's Ashes," a runaway best seller three years ago in which he described his childhood and adolescence in Ireland. Here, he describes his emigration in 1949 to New York, his adult years including his service in the American army, and eventually the death of his mother, the eponymous Angela. If you liked the first book I suppose you'll like this one -- but it's hard for me to know why.

In both books McCourt describes his "down and out" life -- his despairing childhood built around his father's drunkenness and abandonment of the family to killing poverty in the slums of Limerick; his adulthood of shiftless, self-indulgent, self-pitying behavior marked by drunken binges and various forms of abuse of women. Some of these women were defenseless, such as postwar refugees in Europe hungry for coffee or cigarettes whose bereft status he exploits for sex. Others were more resourceful American women unwise enough to succumb to his charms before his improvident drunkenness drove them away.

He views his actions as "typically Irish" -- his charm and cleverness, sly laziness and self-indulgence, and his ever-present preoccupation with drink and sex. Throughout he peppers his comments with exclamations and interjections that reveal a Roman Catholic background but he regularly berates the institutions and individuals tied to his church for adding guilt to his burdens and failing to act as he thinks they should. He's a lot tougher on the church than he is on himself.

Indeed, this book and its predecessor are long descriptions of depravity and betrayals in which the child in "Angela's Ashes" is the father of the man in " 'Tis." What offends is the presumption that this is Irish life when it is a description of the vile product of urban poverty and personal inertia found in every city in the world.

Actually McCourt strikes one as a buffoon -- a sicker version of the "Pat and Mike" stage Irishman of decades past -- here though full of disappointment and hatred wrapped in a superficial liberality and self-indulgence that smacks of adolescent bravado.

One's first impulse is to call for a Hibernian Anti-Defamation League that would identify this work as a nasty ethnic slur -- trying to forge a defaming cultural generalization from the author's own misbehavior and its consequences.

But McCourt's cynical disparagement of his heritage has become characteristic of many other contemporary Irish writers and differentiates them as a group. You do not find in them the "overcoming" themes of black writers or the teasing affection for their traditions found in Jewish ones.

Could the Irish stance be a rationalization to assuage their ambivalence over their "fallen away" Catholic status that they see as necessary for their assimilation into the dominant society?

This could explain these authors' fierce hostility toward bearers of those traditions -- priests and nuns in particular -- that runs like a poisoned stream through their work. Psychiatrists call such a stance "identification with the aggressor," a neurotic betrayal of one's own lineage. A simpler expression is "selling out," and given the (to me inexplicable) reception of his books, McCourt gets richly paid for it.

Paul McHugh is Henry Phipps professor and the director of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. He, along with Phillip R. Slavney, M.D., wrote "The Perspectives of Psychiatry," a standard text used in American medical schools. He has also written for the American Journal of Psychiatry, Medicine and Nature Medicine.

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