Once in a while, though I try not to do it too often, I veer from sports in this space. The last time I did it, in fact, was when a favorite author, John Updike, passed away. Today another died. So, another tribute.
Frank McCourt spent nearly 30 years as a teacher of creative writing in the New York City public schools and probably thought, as each year passed, that he was another year further from writing the book he knew was dwelling inside of him.
It wasn’t until he was in his mid-sixties and retired that McCourt finally got around to writing that book.
Its title was “Angela’s Ashes,” and it sold four million copies in hardback, millions more in paperback, and stayed atop the best-seller lists for two years. It won him the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards. And it single-handedly breathed new life into the art of memoir in American literature.
Of all the books published during my lifetime, it surely is the one which I have read the most. I’m not big on re-reading. But his simple and sincere style is a model. And, once I stopped reading, I began to listen to the award-winning audio versions of the book, which are even more of a pleasure than the reading.
The opening monologue of “Angela’s Ashes” is some of the finest writing in the past 25 years. A quick sample:
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
The beauty of this book, beyond the writing and the understated telling of a tale of immeasurable pain, is that the product of all that suffering and striving, literally, is held in the hands of the reader. The happy ending is the book itself. It is a triumphant, unseen character that looms over every traumatic event in the life of young Frankie. The inspiration is in the reader’s grasp.
McCourt said that the memoir didn’t take off until he found his voice — and that was the voice of a child. It especially emerges in his reading of the book — which won a Grammy for the spoken word.
He published two other memoirs, “‘Tis,” the tale of his returning to America after saving enough money to depart Ireland, and “Teacher Man,” his memoir of his teaching years. I recommend them both.
In the end, McCourt’s life not only demonstrated the ability of a person to overcome even the most difficult childhood circumstances, but the ability of a person to reach his dream, to find his voice, to make his mark, to find fame and fulfillment — even if he doesn’t get around to it until he’s in his sixties.
He’ll be missed. But he leaves a grateful legion of readers who are glad that he finally got around to getting it all down on paper before he departed.
While on this theme, I should take a moment to talk about Tom Watson. In Scotland today, he demonstrated very much the same thing. If McCourt said that, contrary to the pronouncement of F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are second acts in American life, Watson seconded the notion in the British Open golf championship.
Through four rounds at age fifty-nine, a decade older than any other winner of a major golf championship, Watson led the tournament heading to the final hole of regulation. But his game faltered on him one stroke too soon. He missed an 8 to 10 foot putt, shot it tentatively, and in the ensuing four-hole playoff, he hooked four shots and wound up losing by six strokes to Stuart Cink.
Tom Watson didn’t need this championship to cement his legacy. He was in no need at all of a second act. But that was his stage at Turnberry for the past four days, and his performance only enhanced that legacy.
If nothing else, for four days in July, 60-year-olds everywhere may have walked a little taller, or at least looked at themselves in the mirror and thought, “Tom Watson’s winning the British Open, what the hell are you doing?”
At least, I know one (nearly) 41-year-old who did that.
I read somewhere that William Faulkner said characters between the ages of 20 and 40 were the most difficult to make sympathetic.
Watching Watson and Kenny Perry at the Masters make bids at winning majors leaves you thinking that the old man was onto something.
Dan Jenkins, whose twitter postings for Golf Digest are better than most people’s full stories, went from describing a press room full of writers praying for a Watson win and a chance to pen (or keyboard) such a poignant story, to concluding, “In the press room, we had a suspicion we weren’t good enough people to deserve Watson winning.”
Maybe we weren’t. But Watson is. Still, regardless of the finish, Watson remains the story of this tournament. Cink is the winner, but Watson is the story, always will be.
It’s just these endings, all too often, are not the ones we would hope for.