BEFORE FRANK WROTE THE PULITZER PRIZEWINNING Angela's Ashes, Malachy was the most famous McCourt brother. A black-sheep favoured son in his adopted New York, he had carved out a semi-celebrity niche as a raconteur and roisterer, a life-of-the-party who liked a drink, a song and a story, and didn't mind a fight. He had been a wharfie and man-about town turned innkeeper (his salon, Malachy's, was apparently NY's first singles bar, the late-50s haunt of regulars like Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Grace Kelly and Albert Finney). Then there was Malachy the philanderer, haunted drunk, character actor of stage, tv serials (Ryan's Hope) and screen (Bonfire of the Vanities, The Devil's Own, Reversal of Fortune), a radio talkshow host and an institution as late-night tv larrikin.
Now he's become a writer. His memoir, A Monk Swimming, attracted a reported $600,000 advance from the Disney-owned Hyperion and an unprecedented first-author print run of 250,000 copies (doubled after execs saw McCourt in action with their sales force and realised what promotional talent they had). Pan Macmillan publishing director James Fraser made a $100,000 Australasian rights bid when he read the manuscript. It's probably an astute move, if breeding counts.
After all, retired schoolteacher Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes is an international phenomenon (200,000-plus copies in Australia alone), a finely-honed retelling of a family's life in Ireland's impoverished Limerick in the 1940s. It is lyrical literature. A Monk Swimming is not. In a way, the difference is as simple as that between a ten-year labour of love (Ashes) and a seven-month labour of lucre. Monk, however, was never meant to be Ashes II. It is instead, as McCourt puts it, a "rowdy, raucous and offensive" chronology of his own coming to America.
The precocious little brother of Angela's Ashes grew into a tall, 240-pound rugby-playing party animal with a shock of red hair and a buccaneer's beard. His recollections are bawdy a la Frank Hardy, broguishy Runyonesque, and they rollick along in leaps of high-octane, name-dropping, alocohol-fuelled hilarity and anti-heroics - thespian New York, Robert Mitchum in Hollywood, whores around the world, gold-smuggling in India ... "In my opinion," he writes, "there wasn't a party in New York that wasn't complete without my wit, erudition and exuberance." It was a defensive attack - there's also the occasional pathos and self-loathing of an emotional loser, his abysmal failure at marriage, the return to the family of his "reformed" alcoholic father ... "The lunacy and alcoholism were unsuccessful attempts to kill the ghosts of my past, running from my demons, anger and murderous impulses."
IT'S MIDNIGHT IN THE BIG APPLE when I phone. McCourt - now 66, a noted scourge of the conservative and a prominent proselyte for AA - is at his Manhattan appartment on the Upper West Side (his home for half his life). The hour is his request, a snatched opportunity on a one-night pit-stop amid a 15-city US pr whirl. Monk, released there two weeks before, has hit bestseller lists with a bullet, having sold "three times the population of Limerick in two days". Despite the lateness, "If I was feeling any better," he says, "God would be jealous."
Soon enough, I realise our exchange is the polished patter of practised quips, a beguiling if fractured banter. Did he, I slide in, write his book out of me-tooism or fraternal competition? Not at all. How, he asks, can you rewrite Ulysses? "Frank's book was wonderful, I was overawed. I always knew he was brilliant with the language but the way he outlined that life we had in Limerick - it was extraordinarily moving, and he captured everything."
So the impulsion wasn't to cash in? "The impulsion was the big advance. It's amazing how money can persuade you to overcome indolence." His brother has not read Monk - he's writing his own version of that time and doesn't want his recollections diverted. The family, though, has a McCourt Inc literary industry going. "There's Frank and me," agress malachy, "and Connor my son made a McCourt family television documentary, and my brother Alphie's just started writing. The youngest brother Michael is waiting until we're all dead, he says - he wants the last word."
As a reformed hell-raiser, I divert, how much fun is it being politely feted? "It's always fun adjusting my halo - it gives me that very great feeling of righteousness that I have it all over my friends that are dead, from doing all the things I am abstaining from."
A life-saving decision, then? "Oh God yes, so many have kicked off and I began thinking, well, it's a bit soon for me. So I stopped the drinking about 13 years ago, the cigarettes about ten, been a vegetarian about five. And I gave up coffee and the New York Times on the same day."
There's a relationship? "Shit in, shit out," he laughs. But the Times said such positive things about your book ... "Oh but they did, they did," he chortles wildly. "That doesn't mean I have to reciprocate."
So how is life through a glass soberly? I lead. "Very peaceful. And I remember who I insulted last night, and I remember where I was. And I am laughing more." Which he then demonstrates again, with gusto.
The life you do remember in your book is rambunctious and anarchic ... how does Malachy today regard the young Malachy? "I see it this way: the Jews have a monopoly on guilt, the Irish Catholic has the monopoly on remorse, and Protestants have regrets only, thank you. I have none of those three."
But would you recommend that lifestyle to your children? "I would not." Why not? "For me, part of it was the great geographical relocation that I took, which was simply escaping from me. Part of growing up in the slums of Limerick was the deep sense of shame that poverty engenders. You have two demons perched on your shoulder - shame and fear. Shame takes care of the past and fear takes care of the future, which means you can never live in the present.
"I would accept [that lifestyle] if the reasons for it were exuberance and that you thoroughly loved who and what you are and that you were going somewhere and not running from something."
How do you learn to do that? "By living long enough. And giving up the drink." Longevity is it's own revenge? "It is" - he chuckles dirtily - "miraculously enough, you become an old-timer simply by surviving one day at a time."
When I ask if his acknowledged assumption of the blarney-and-boyo stage-Irishman role back then was to hide feelings of inadequacies, there is a slight hesitation before he sweeps in with "Right. I was always aware that I left school at 13. The intricacies of simple arithmetic and ordinary grammar escape me to this day, but I've always liked using words."
You also became well read ... "Reading was the saviour, the window on the world, for Frank and myself." Not the famous friends and bonhommie? "They were part of it, but the main thing is the speech of the Irish, of not using one word when a hundred will do ... the normal conversation when I was growing up was eloquent, loquacious, having in it the love of a story. We had nothing but talk - no radio, no tv, no electricity. They say that In the beginning was the Word, but before that came the Irish."
Was there, I ask, any catharsis in the writing? "God, no, no - I just couldn't wait when I wrote it to see what I had to say next." Learn anything from it? "Nothing - I just thought isn't this great fun now? And isn't it grand to be paid for it?"
The title's allusion to the Hail Mary's Blessed art thou amongst women ["A Monk Swimming" is how the young Malachy misheard the prayer's phrase] is cheekily sardonic, I suggest. Especially since you were more a user and abuser, a serial Likely Lad who treated women pretty abysmally, no?
"Oh yes - it was vastly important to dip the wick at every opportunity, and there were indeed many takers, or receivers should I say. The erect penis has no conscience, and some things just can't be left standing. It was largely ego, and gratification, but still fun at the time ..."
Nevertheless, the strongest presence in your book is the absent father ... "They say living well is the best revenge but I believe forgiveness is better because then the fuckers don't know what to do with it. I eventually realised I couldn't carry resentment against him through my life; metaphorically, it was like carrying buckets of shit. Then one day someone says why don't you put down the buckets? And you realise you can't go getting gifts, or giving them, with fists that are closed tightly around buckets of shit."
But there was a perpetuation of that pattern of desertion by you in your first marriage ... "There was, yes, although in a funny sort of a way both my children [he now has five] thought me a very colorful character whenever I hove into their lives. Later on, of course, they didn't. My relationship with the Dad was you virtually become the thing you hate the most ..."
So how did you break the pattern? "When I remarried I began to look back on the wreckage, and you decide to make amends if you can. The best revenge was to try to be the best husband, father and grandfather I could be ... which I hope I am."
But not boring and righteous in your reformation? "I hope not. And I hope I don't preach. There's only one thing worse than being wrong and that's being right. Although I will sometimes say 'take my advice, I'm not using it right now' ..."
Writing has been a fortunate career change, then. "And just as well because the lights were going down on the acting career, as they do when you get to a certain age. And some people were becoming extremely jealous of my talents. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DeCaprio were putting pressure on the studios not to hire me."
But you're a limelight addict still? "Oh I love it," he guffaws, "I've just been going around the country having a rollicking good time reading and performing and telling stories ... they're flying me first class and putting me in limos and there are handlers and carriers and God knows what - you could get used to it."
How's the head? "In great shape all together, thank you, so long as I keep it screwed on to the shoulders I'll be alright. My wife Diana helps in that regard - she's my spiritual mentor, advisor, lover and friend."
As we exchange preliminary goodbyes, he asides with unusual solemnity that "Angela's Ashes just brought our whole family together, melding and welding." Because it made you confront evasions, I ask? "Family is as thick as its secrets," he answers, "and we had some. If you go into a field and lift up the paving stones, you find maggots and creepy crawlies underneath. After the sun shines on that spot a while it'll dry out and soon grass grows and you have a nice verdant lawn. That's what's happened with us. There's real beauty in that."
* A Monk Swimming is published in Australia by Picador. Malachy McCourt will be a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August. This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1998
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