While not as tightly structured as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela’s Ashes (1996), the irrepressible McCourt’s follow-up memoir has the same driving rhythm, charm, and infectious humor that so captivated readers of the earlier installment.
The story picks up in 1949 as McCourt, aged 19, sails to America to seek his fortune. Befriended by a priest who helps him settle in New York City, he’s shocked when the man makes a drunken pass at him. His life in New York becomes one of seedy boarding houses, menial labor on the docks and warehouses, and, always, heavy drinking, often with his brothers Malachy and Michael. Conditionally admitted to New York University (he had no high school diploma), he’s thrilled to show off his textbooks on the subway but bored with the class work. He’d rather read Sean O’Casey, “the first Irish writer I ever read who writes about rags, dirt, hunger, babies dying….” He falls in love with and eventually marries Alberta “Mike” Small, a beautiful Episcopalian from New England. It’s a marriage that will “become a sustained squabble.” His early years as a high school teacher, first at a vocational school on Staten Island, later at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, are humorously and revealingly retold. His first words as a teacher? “Stop throwing sandwiches.” McCourt occasionally interrupts his chronological narrative with lengthy, if funny, portraits of characters he’s met along the way. Angela, who has moved back to New York to be near her sons, has become a difficult, sickly woman upon whose death McCourt would write: “I thought I’d know the grief of the grown man…. I didn’t know I’d feel like a child cheated.”
Those whose hearts went out to the little boy who suffered so in Limerick might be put off by the hard-drinking, carousing grownup. But there’s no denying McCourt’s engaging wit. Is it as rewarding as Angela’s Ashes? ‘Tis. (First serial to the New Yorker; Literary Guild main selection; author tour)