L.S. Klepp
September 22, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Frank McCourt
Biography, Nonfiction

We gave it an A

What can Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning ”Angela’s Ashes,” do after writing a classic? He continues the story, in the same wry, understated key. The last word of ”Angela’s Ashes” was ‘Tis. It was his response to the rhetorical question of an officer on the Irish ship he was taking, in 1949 at the age of 19, to America: ”Isn’t this a great country altogether?”

America, where he had been born (Brooklyn) before removal to Limerick, was the consoling hope that ran through the bleakness of ”Angela’s Ashes,” kept alive by his love of American movies. But once Frank is back in New York, fate starts cursing him again. The fat Irish-American priest he met on board the ship kindly offers him a share of a hotel room, gets him a job, and then, after a few martinis, takes a decidedly unfrocked interest in him, which Frank narrowly escapes.

The job the priest finds him is emptying ashtrays in the famous Palm Court lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, where generations of elite college students met for dates. If the students aren’t mocking Frank’s bad teeth and chronically red, infected eyes, they’re looking right through him, yet he’s so provoked by the girls’ healthy American beauty that he periodically retreats to the men’s room to, as he vividly puts it, ”interfere” with himself.

Yet America begins to reward his wavering faith, usually when he least expects it. The Army provides farcical complications but also escape from his dead-end jobs. Despite never having been to high school, he wedges himself into New York University, and the beautiful blond New England girl he meets there casts off her football-star boyfriend and, after mishaps and a slapstick wedding at city hall, becomes his wife. He moves from teaching restless students at bad high schools to teaching restless students at good ones.

Not that this becomes a complete success story. There’s trouble with his mother, Angela, and, after the birth of a daughter, trouble in his marriage. But as in ”Angela’s Ashes,” the disillusion and confusion conceal a near-heroic persistence that never calls attention to itself amid McCourt’s modest, droll prose.

”Angela’s Ashes” has the advantage of a child’s stark perspective and is closer by every measure except time to Dickens’ London than to late-20th-century America, and so has a concentrated power ”’Tis” can’t match. But this book has the same clairvoyant eye for quirks of class, character, and fate, and also a distinct picaresque quality. It’s a quest for an America of wholesome Hollywood happiness that doesn’t exist, and it’s about the real America — rendered with comic affection — that McCourt discovers along the way.

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