He endured a famously miserable Irish Catholic childhood and, when he was 66, immortalized the deaths, poverty, alcoholism, abandonment, and abuse in his spectacular Pulitzer-winning 1996 autobiography, Angela’s Ashes. But in between the wretched upbringing and the late-blooming writing career, what did the silver-tongued Frank McCourt do with his life?
His charming, blurry new memoir, Teacher Man, answers that question: From his 20s through his 50s, McCourt taught English in New York City’s public high schools. Fitfully inspired, often depressed, unhappily married, and perpetually restless, he instructed future Staten Island plumbers and Brooklyn housewives in the meaning of the word usufruct, the necessity for action verbs, and the key to appreciating Theodore Roethke. ”My arithmetic tells me that about twelve thousand boys and girls, men and women, sat at desks and listened to me lecture, chant, encourage, ramble, sing, declaim, recite, preach, dry up,” McCourt writes.
What does a memoirist do when he has mined his life’s richest ore, as McCourt did with his glimmering debut? He moves on to less obviously promising lodes, and 30 years of ”drying up” in urban classrooms certainly qualifies. This was not the gossipy, bookish career of the professor or prep-school teacher: This was a life sentence of hard labor, and it left little room for the expansive intellectual life McCourt longed for. ”When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose,” he writes. ”You get no time for reading Graham Greene or Dashiell Hammett, F. Scott Fitzgerald or good old P.G. Wodehouse, or your main man, Mr. Jonathan Swift. You’ll go blind reading Joey and Sandra, Tony and Michelle.”
The prospect of imposing a narrative structure on 30 years of Joey, Sandra, Tony, and Michelle is daunting, and McCourt doesn’t even try. He works impressionistically, describing only a handful of his 12,000 students, and these so perfunctorily that most occupy less than a page — and stick in the reader’s mind about that long. Chinese-born Nancy Chu boasts of learning English from Fred Astaire (”When I’m uptight I sing ‘Dancing in the Dark.’ You should learn that, Mr. McCourt, and sing it to the class”), and mouthy Serena shames him into taking a class of 29 boisterous girls to see Hamlet (”We still wanna know how come we not goin’ to see this play? White kids gonna see this play just because this prince be white”). Then there’s maddeningly obdurate Hector, whom McCourt swats across the face with a rolled-up copy of Practical English one morning — an outburst that (rightly) costs him his job. He records, as well, his pedagogical triumphs, like the collection of forged excuse notes (”American high school writing at its best — raw, real, urgent, lucid, brief, lying”) that inspired him to assign the composition of excuse notes to a class of otherwise reluctant writers.
But for all the zany personalities and upbeat anecdotes, what you take away from this vivid, occasionally slapdash pasteup is the author’s despair. ”I wanted to be doing something adult and significant, going to meetings, dictating to my secretary, sitting with glamorous people at long mahogany boardroom tables, flying to conventions, unwinding in trendy bars, sliding into bed with luscious women…,” McCourt moans, repeating this note of disappointment throughout the volume. The quiet desperation of a frustrated man doesn’t pull at the heartstrings quite like a hardscrabble Irish childhood, but McCourt makes clear that it was, in its own way, every bit as miserable.