Like most fans of Angela’s Ashes, I eagerly awaited the sequel, and boy was I in for a ride. ‘Tis (the last word of the previous book) features Frank McCourt, the long suffering, frustrated, persevering, bewildered, fun loving, church-hating, shy, silly, nervous, ungrateful and humorous hero finally reaching the promised land. He disembarks at Poughkeepsie (yes, he has trouble with that name) and gets taken under wing by a priest he met on the boat (yes, the priest’s behavior is rather unholy.) First thing they do is get a cheeseburger, and while that may not seem like much to you, it is to a hungry Irishman who never got to eat that much beef! Follow that with a key lime pie, and he’s on cloud nine. They take a train to Manhattan, where the priest gets drunk and puts on a show (the kind I won’t describe.) Once he’s sobered up the next morning, he finds Frank a job at the Biltmore, shows him how to look for a room to rent, and they part ways.
Now it gets even weirder. He has a mysterious eye disease that he got in Ireland, and his boss sends him to a succession of clueless doctors. As for where he’ll live in the meantime, he rents a room in a house in the east 30’s owned by a Swedish woman, and subsists on her leftovers (cheap food is a big theme in this book.) He smuggles a bottle of ginger ale and a key lime pie into a movie theatre, accidentally breaks the bottle and cuts himself, and thanks to his raincoat, gets mistaken for a pervert. He gets drafted (“oh thank you for saving me from having to sweep up ashes at the Biltmore”), and at the army base, he’s the star attraction because of his accent. He goes to NYU on the GI Bill, gets harassed on his job at the docks (“who ever heard of an Irishman going to college?”) and becomes a teacher in Staten Island.
One of the great themes of this book is frivolousness. Frank McCourt comes off as a bit of a clown, talking about every single experience as a joke (“my stay in the army hospital wasn’t so bad, I had all that time to read, until one day I woke from my nap to find the doctor shaking me and yelling “who’s been giving you penicillin?!?”) I might also add that his eye disease isn’t cured until a hospital orderly experiments by putting penicillin in Franks eyes, and keep in mind that this is after a dozen doctors had no idea what to do. He continues to act silly, turns his wedding night into a drunken debacle, and in short order, he’s the ultimate loquacious Irishman.
His education at NYU, by the way, is really mediocre. He attended in the 1950’s, and my grandmother always told me “smart people went to City College, but if you were stupid and your father had money, you went to NYU!” Now why does he pick NYU? He has no idea about the college system, and chooses the first one he sees. His writing talent earns him high praise, though I think he was more of a gifted storyteller than writer. One of the funniest scenes involves his professor getting rather impressed over his essay on Jonathan Swift, and says “did you know, young man, that Swift was a satirist?” McCourt answers “I don’t know, I just thought Jonathan Swift would be a fun guy to have a pint of beer with.” Now that’s the kind of thing a gifted writer would say, but the professor, it’s a no-no. The prof is typical academic snot who has to turn everything into a draw-out philosophy job. He goes “well now, we can’t just take writers for their face value, unlike some people here,” then makes some unkind barbs about McCourt’s ethnicity, and completely ignores him (until his next essay.) The students in the class are mostly girls, and the prof knows them a little better than he should, if you get the hint.
Speaking of Jonathan Swift, McCourt gets two great shocks from the books he reads. First, he discovers Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Jonathan Swift, to name a few, and says “why didn’t those nasty teachers at my school ever tell me about these great Irish writers?” When I read Angela’s Ashes, I was thinking the same damn thing, “Why aren’t Irish schools teaching kids about Irish bards?” Then he finds out why and says “no wonder, these Irish writers were all Protestants!” Perhaps his own bad experience at school drives him to become a teacher himself, even if the pay is less than he gets at the docks.
Let me cap things off by saying that before Gotham became a nickname for Manhattan, the name was synonymous with silly behavior. Washington Irving discovered an English town by that name, where the residents were known for stupidity, and figured the folks here in New Yorker weren’t much smarter. Frank McCourt’s antics fit right into the mood of 1950’s Manhattan, and for a single adult of the time, it was great (and still is.) From the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, to cold water apartments on Houston Street, to Brooklyn Heights brownstones, subway pervs, and crazy beatniks, ‘Tis gives you a 20 year tour of all things nutty in the city.