Monday, July 20, 2009

William Kennedy on Frank McCourt

William Kennedy remembers his friend, Frank McCourt

[Note: This material is ok to quote in other materials and sites, but only with a link and reference to the New York State Writers Institute website:]

A recollection of Frank McCourt


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 Limerick; he wrote about it in unforgettable fashion in his book ‘Angela’s Ashes,’ and he had been looking at it eye-to-eye for the past five years.

We were friends for twenty-five years and he came to Albany too many times to count, three times to the New York State Writers Institute, the last time in 2006 when he drew crowds close to 2,000, with 500 or more turned away. We had gone to Ireland and Saratoga and Cuba together and we would see him in New York when it wasn’t raining.

In July 2005 I was en route to Manhattan and got this note from him saying it was uncertain whether we’d get together, for he was in physical trouble: “The divil came in the form of melanoma on the leg. I had two dramatic incisions and the PET scan now says I’m fifty-fifty in the clear.”

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 New York his doctors found the spinal fracture that was torturing him and the brain tumors that were going to kill him. He was thin and uncomfortable when we talked, but in usual form, speculating on whether 2009 was really the optimum financial year to die, as far as his heirs were concerned.

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 Albany for lunch. This was a Friday, and the formal monthly meeting of the First Friday Club, an event which then Governor Mario Cuomo took note of by issuing a Proclamation declaring the first Friday of January hereafter to be ‘First Friday Day’. By odd coincidence one of Mario’s speechwriters, Peter Quinn, soon to become a novelist, was a First Friday Club member.

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 Albany carried on from noon until 4 p.m., when Frank called a taxi to take him to the train to New York where he had a heavy date. But, when the taxi came, Frank was telling a story and someone sent the taxi away and Frank was forced to keep talking until six-thirty when the next train left. I never laughed so hard for so long and Malachy and the other First Fridayites were also responsible for much of it. I told a few stories and passed muster and became a club member.

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 Albany? That you’ve published a number of books since then while the rest of us, Peter Quinn excepted, sat on our arses and talked about writing books?

“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 Ireland in 1999, a rural town north of Galway, walking along and someone said, ‘Frank McCourt?’ and Frank said yes, and the man said I loved your book and someone else stopped and said it’s Frank McCourt, and then you couldn’t walk on the sidewalk with all the Frank groupies. Frank turned up in all the gossip columns, the talk shows, the celeb circuit. He dined with royalty and movie stars, was in demand as a speaker on cruises and even became writer-in-residence at a posh London hotel, a plum assignment the likes of which I’d never heard of before. When he had dinner with Bill Clinton people would ask, “Who’s that guy sitting with Frank?”

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 True Church. You’ll be saved and you won’t have the doom. After mass on Sunday I go with my friend Billy Campbell to watch them play croquet on the lovely lawn beside their church on Barrington Street. Croquet is a Protestant game. They hit the ball with the mallet, pock and pock again, and laugh. I wonder how they can laugh or don’t they even know they’re doomed? I feel sorry for them and I say, Billy, what’s the use of playing croquet when you’re doomed?

“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 Limerick is still in very good voice, and I believe he’ll be talking to us for years down the road. Doom may lurk out there for the Protestants, but not for Frank McCourt.


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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Frank McCourt

We mourn the passing of our good friend, Frank McCourt.

Keep posted to the website and the blog for further statements.

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