Back in 1996, Scribner, the fine American publisher, put out a Irish memoir by Frank McCourt. Angela’s Ashes was a sensation; McCourt held court for months, amusing avid talk show viewers with the despondent tale of his early years.
This story was sad enough to drive the reader to a life of chugging, largely because the main character and antagonist of the tale was McCourt’s beast of a father, who held a job about as well as he held his ale. Halfway through the book, the old man left his poor wife Angela and their surviving offspring to struggle through a fatherless life on the dole.
Despite its tragic beginning, middle, and end, the story was written with humor and a fancy prose style, which the reading public also loved. And rightly so.
Two years later it was Malachy McCourt’s turn to hold court—first, as the story goes, while entertaining the lunch crowd from Hyperion, which picked up the tab and signed little brother to a six-figure contract before he had as much as written a word; second, by telling avid talk show viewers the boisterous tale of his early years. The words that Malachy came to write were taped together in his own memoir, A Monk Swimming—a title purportedly based upon a youthful mishearing of the Hail Mary phrase, “Blessed art thou amongst women.”
But the story does not end with McCourt II’s brief turn on the talk show circuit. Nor does it end with the current price of an unused copy of his memoir, which, as I write, has hit 99 cents. Big brother Frank was still to be heard from, again in the form of a memoir, this one based on his adult years as an American. ’Tis recounts the equally sad tale of Frank’s problems, featuring his marriages and his pub life, which appears to be an imitation of his father’s.
Frank McCourt’s second book (1999) has less laughter. The style has slipped a wee bit. This reviewer got only halfway through it. I was not put off by the ladies and the pubs; in my pre-robot day I enjoyed them both. No: I was put off by the slippage. The hope of the literate public, that we had another Hemingway in our midst, was on the wane. Nevertheless, hope kept springing eternal, because the word was out that Frank McCourt had signed on to write a novel.
But signing a contract and delivering the goods are not equivalents. Both we of the critical caste and fans of Frank have a right to know when this novel is coming out. Or maybe the word is if. For writing a memoir and composing a novel are also not equivalents. One can ramble and repeat and get away with it; but when it comes to writing novels, one must follow rules, even if they are of the one’s own making.
I am a betting man, or, to be particular, a betting robot with nothing to lose. And I am betting that in this case, there will be no third act.