Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Writers Reading: Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt, writer of Angela’s Ashes (or Angela’s Asses as Katie Couric flubbed, to gales of laughter from the author himself) was in great form a few weeks back at a reading he gave at Union Square to promote his latest memoir, Teacher Man. The seventy-five-year-old retired high school teacher has clearly grown accustomed to life in the spotlight. He sprang up to the podium, sporting a somewhat odd combination of green shirt, brown tweed blazer, dark tie and khakis. He began speaking almost before he was in earshot of the mike.

I first saw Frank McCourt at a similar event shortly after his first book was published nine years ago, and I remember as I approached him to have my copy signed, the startled look on his face, as if a gun had just gone off next to him. Understandably, for a man who grew up with such low expectations of what his life would become, to suddenly at age sixty-six be both an acclaimed author everyone wanted a piece of as well as a wealthy man, must have all been a lot to absorb.

But this time, he chatted comfortably to the audience for a while before reading. He told about a friend, Steve, 54 years old, who said to him one day “I think I’ll teach”. McCourt found this laughable, how now some people in the U.S. (usually affluent and well educated) look at teaching in poor, inner city schools, as if it were a fun hobby to dabble in. And he scoffed at the concept of “this giving back”, asking “Who thought that up? Don’t we give back enough every April 15th?”

(Steve only lasted 7 weeks.)

Before teaching, Frank McCourt worked at Manufacturers Hanover Trust bank, as a loan officer. He said he was fired for being too generous and approving an excessive amount of unsecured loans to Puerto Ricans. By the same token, he said he took great pleasure in turning down any Irish names: “Quit yer drinking and you’ll be able to afford a car!”

When it was time to read, he took out a pair of green-framed eyeglasses that would have made Daniel Libeskind, or any architect, proud. They reminded me of a pair of women’s specs by Chanel.

He peppered the pauses between the excerpts he read with his observations of high school students (“They have to trip someone once a day.”) and the boroughs of New York where he’s taught (“Staten Island is not a place for joking. They voted for Barry Goldwater.”).

The best part he read was a selection of excuse notes he used to receive from the students he was teaching at a vocational school. The were remarkable to him not because the students had penned them themselves (which they had), but because they demonstrated a creativity and imagination totally lacking in everything else they wrote for him. The students spun tales of baby sisters spitting up on looseleaf, of flames licking up the wallpaper in the family kitchen before consuming the sheaf that was due, and on and on. I laughed so hard I was doubled over with tears rolling down my face. The Teacher Man seized upon this latent talent and started giving them assignments to write excuse notes for people like Adam and Eve (addressed to God). His students were gobsmacked.

Most remarkable to me, is how we absorb accents at an early age, for good.

Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn and moved to his mother’s native Limerick, Ireland when he was a child. He remained there until age 19 when he sailed back to America, and to hear him speak today, is to hear a Limerick accent untouched by 50 years of life in New York, one so thick you could cut it with a knife. You can hear for yourself here.


Blogger The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

I only recently read Angela's Ashes (or asses as Ms. Couric said :)) I was horrified, moved and delighted by the characters and their stories. I look forward to reading the new book. I'm sure I'll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed this post :)

9:15 AM  
Blogger Olinda said...

Thanks, Shoefi. The first book really was a good read. Amazing that he can find and portray humor even in such dire circumstances.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Ram said...

I just posted about Teacher Man, and did a search and found your post. I loved the book, perhaps more than Angela's Ashes or even 'Tis. I missed McCourt's coming to Chicago for a reading/signing event. I hope he's writing a fourth one and that I get to hear him live soon.


10:41 AM  

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