William Kennedy remembers his friend, Frank McCourt
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A recollection of Frank McCourt
By WILLIAM KENNEDY
Frank McCourt may be dead, but I don’t think so.
He grew up and old with death, a frequent visitor to his family and to his neighborhood in
We were friends for twenty-five years and he came to
In July 2005 I was en route to
Fifty-fifty, not great odds. My wife, Dana, and I saw him and his wife, Ellen, a few months ago after their return from Tahiti where he had suffered the seizure that sent him into horrible pain; and he had to endure it in Tahiti for three days as a hostage to Air France, which couldn’t find him a seat on any US-bound planes. Back in
I met him first on January 4, 1984, when he and his brother Malachy and a dozen other writers, literary critics, talkers, and drinkers came to
The club had been formed to promote mid-day drinking while talking, and perhaps eating, by members, and on this day in 1984 I heard Frank McCourt talk for the first time and I was convulsed. A luncheon in
I learned that the club had been founded on the basis of a novena in the Catholic religion: that if you receive communion on nine consecutive first Fridays you will die in a state of grace and go directly to Heaven. This was slightly modified by the club to assure members that whoever came to lunch nine Fridays in a row would be guaranteed a bartender at his deathbed.
On March 4, 1996 Frank sent me a letter:
“Do you realize it’s 12 years since the First Friday Club pilgrimated to your side at an Italian restaurant in
“I, meself, couldn’t stand it any longer, so I wrote a book and I’m sending you a copy for perusal and, perhaps, a blurb note. That’s if you like the book, of course; if you don’t like it we have a special place for the negative notes and it’s usually not on the book jacket.
“I haven’t seen you in ages … Will we see you ever again at a F.F. gathering? Your membership is not in danger. First Fridayites are like Mafiosi – once you’re in the only way out is the grave.”
So I gave a blurb to the book, which he called ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and I said he was a wizard and that his writing about his boyhood and poverty and family pain in Limerick was as real as a stab in the heart, and I said its language, its narrative grace were that of a fine novel, which is the highest praise I can offer to a prose work. Frank had taught school all his adult life after he came back to this country (he was born here in 1930), and he only began writing with fervor after he retired in 1987. In time the book took shape and it was snatched up in 1996 and Frank’s life changed.
“Nothing happened to me till I was 66,” he said.
But then it happened with skyrockets. ‘Angela’s Ashes’ won rave reviews from the critics, was a New York Times number one best-seller for a year and on the list for two years; it sold four million in hardcover, millions and millions more in England, Ireland, Germany and everywhere else too. It won the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, it became a movie, and Frank became one of the most famous people on earth. We were in
His talent was singular – in the spoken word as well as his writing, a master raconteur. Every word he uttered could be comic, if he wanted it that way, and he usually did. ‘Angela’s Ashes’ reads like a novel (as do his two subsequent books, ‘’Tis’ and ‘Teacher Man’) but he called it a memoir and so it became; and its form and style loomed with such excellence and success that the memoir has become the form of choice for a legion of authors ever since. Frank had been trying for years to turn his old diaries into a novel but couldn’t make it work. Then he found a voice that sounded like the child he remembered being and he let the boy talk, and the talk captivated the world.
Listen to Frank the boy watching Protestant girls going to church. “I feel sorry for them, especially the girls, who are so lovely, they have such beautiful white teeth. I feel sorry for the beautiful Protestant girls, they’re doomed. That’s what the priests tell us. Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. Outside the Catholic Church there is nothing but doom. And I want to save them. Protestant girl, come with me to the
“He says, Frankie, what’s the use of not playing croquet when you’re doomed?”
Frank was very good on doom. But I don’t think it’s in the cards for his big book. That silver-tongued kid from