'Tis a miracle year for the Family McCourt.
Frank McCourt's memoir " 'Tis" is being released today. " 'Tis" is the sequel to "Angela's Ashes," McCourt's heart-tugging, Pulitzer Prize-winning story about growing up in a poverty-stricken Irish home with a strong but long-suffering mother and an alcoholic, and largely absent, father. After more than two years as a hardcover bestseller, "Angela" has been at the top of the paperback lists since it appeared in May. There are more than 2.3 million copies in print. "A Monk Swimming"--a coming-to-America memoir by Frank's kid brother Malachy--has been selling briskly since it was published in June. Alphonsus, the youngest of the brothers, is trying to sell his own memoir of life among the McCourts. And "A Couple of Blaguards," written by Frank and Malachy, opens tonight at Ford's Theatre. Malachy McCourt will be playing himself.
In a full McCourt press on America, the three brothers--there is a fourth, Michael; three other siblings died in Ireland--are spinning tales of their past hither, thither and yon. They are in no danger of living unexamined lives. Like chefs over a well-cooked turkey, they are slicing, dicing, chopping and shopping around their pasts--in person, in print, onstage and on screen. Conor McCourt, Malachy's son, this year produced his second documentary on his father and uncles--Frank, Michael and Alphonsus--and the Hollywood version of "Angela's Ashes" is scheduled to be released in December.
Being a McCourt is a full-time business.
"We have both come to the conclusion," says Malachy of himself and Frank, "that we're so [bleeping] bored with ourselves."
On this recent morning, Malachy, 68, grabs a bagel and coffee at Cup'A Cup'A in the Watergate before play rehearsal.
He's a right jolly old elf, Malachy, with his wispy white hair, bushy white eyebrows and a melodious brogue that makes swearing sound sweet.
Is he envious of Frank's fame? No, he says, not in the least. In fact, he's tickled that Frank is now center stage. After all, didn't Frank toil away for 30 years in a New York high school classroom while Malachy (pronounced MAL-a-kee) lived the high life--saloon keeper, soap opera regular, radio talk show host, movie star?
But it was Frank's phenomenal success with the 1996 publication of "Angela's Ashes" that catapulted the McCourt name into prominence.
"This memoir is an instant classic of the genre," said a review of "Angela" in The Washington Post.
Frank McCourt "has succeeded in turning bleak reality into literature that sings," pronounced the online magazine Salon. Reviews of " 'Tis" have not been so generous.
Two years later, Malachy published "A Monk Swimming," a memoir of his young-adult years in this country, roughly 1952 to 1962. The book was hammered.
Kirkus Reviews found Malachy guilty of "a curdled tone of self-pity and self-flagellation. Sporadically amusing, but just as often infuriating."
The Washington Post reviewer called it "a distressing embarrassment."
Malachy says he wrote the book simply because a publisher "offered me a huge sum of money . . . in the wake of 'Angela's Ashes.' "
"Monk" has sold well enough--250,000 hardcover copies in print--to warrant a second volume. He jokes that he was going to call it "I Read Your Brother's Book, But . . ." Instead he's calling it "Singing My Him Song."
"I have no idea what that means," says Malachy.
Such disarming honesty is his hallmark. He says he's not a well-educated man. "I'm very limited. I tend to stick with what I know, what I understand."
One thing he understands is poverty. On his way to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop, a man begs for money. "He's here every morning," Malachy says, "asking for a dollar."
Malachy, who suffered shame and self-loathing as he watched his mother panhandle on the streets of Limerick, walks past the beggar. Giving him a dollar, he says, will not solve anyone's problems.
"There's no shortage of money or food," he says. "All it is is distribution."
The Play's the Sting
Onstage at Ford's Theatre for a rousing run-through of "A Couple of Blaguards"--which will run through Oct. 31--Malachy and Mickey Kelly, who plays the role of Frank, mix vivid memories with vaudeville song and dance. The play is equal parts party and poignancy.
The idea for "Blaguards"--the Irish pronunciation of "blackguards," defined by the dictionary as people who use abusive language--crystallized around 1980 when Frank and Malachy, notorious for spinning outrageous Irish yarns to students and saloon habitues, decided to take their shtick to the stage. "We sounded like Mickey Rooney," Malachy recalls. "Let's put on a show."
A friend of Malachy's had a small theater in Manhattan. They engaged it and began spending evenings there telling thrice-told tales. "We didn't write anything down," he says.
The result was a sort of improvisational autobiography--snappy vignettes of growing up Catholic in Limerick, of a destitute single mother, and of discovering the wonders of the New World. "Sometimes the audience was gone before we were," he says.
Before their mother, Angela McCourt, died in 1981, she went to see her sons in the show. She stood up in the middle, Malachy remembers, and said, "It didn't happen that way! It's all a pack of lies!"
The stories in the play, Malachy says, "are elaborations of our lives, not exaggerations."
Over the years, the brothers performed the revue in Chicago, Pittsburgh and other places. They honed it down to under two hours, and eventually Irish actors stepped in for one brother or another when necessary. Other theaters wanted to stage the show, even without the McCourts.
Malachy has played himself hundreds and hundreds of times. On the stark Ford's stage, with two chairs, a table, two pints of root beer that look like Guinness stout and photos of Limerick and New York as backdrop, the men lock arms and dance and sing Irish songs and recall sexual conquests. Kelly, as Frank, tells of his first Communion and his regurgitation of the sacred wafer. Malachy recounts his exploits as a gold smuggler and recalls painfully the death of his brother Oliver and two other young siblings.
"There's terrible shame in poverty," Malachy says. "It tears at your insides to this day. This play is a defense against those memories."
After his performance, he sits in his dressing room, looking older than he did before the rehearsal. Against the wall, the air conditioner whinges. He takes off his costume--a blue shirt and khakis. And steps into his street clothes--a blue shirt and khakis.
His interest in the play, he says, is waning. "The more I do it," says Malachy, "the more reflective I get." His mind wanders sometimes onstage.
"It's like 'A Christmas Carol' in that you're summoning up ghosts of the past."
This, he predicts, will be his last run as a blaguard.
And why not? The play has served its purpose, played itself out. The stories and songs of "Blaguards" are the primal matter from which "Monk" and "Angela" and " 'Tis" were created. Watching "Blaguards" is like peering through a telescope at the cosmic past. This is the origin of the McCourt universe. This is the Big Bang.
But after decades of hard drinking and creative storytelling and dramatic reshaping of a memory of a memory of a memory, Malachy says he occasionally asks himself, "What is the reality?"
" 'A Couple of Blaguards' just skims the surface," says Frank McCourt, 69, of the work he co-authored. "It just doesn't dig in anywhere. It skims along," he says from his apartment in New York. "There are moments of pathos, but it hews to the stereotype of the Irish. And that doesn't satisfy me anymore."
In fact, with the publication of " 'Tis," he says, he's memoired out. He's working on a novel. "I need space. I need to spread my wings," he says. "I want to play with the facts, play with the fantasies, enlarge, enhance and put the character in a situation and see what happens."
Some reviewers believe that the McCourts play with the facts in their memoirs. To this, Frank McCourt says blarney. He paraphrases Gore Vidal: "The autobiography is history; but the memoir is the impression of my life."
His two books, he says, "are centered on factual material--they circle around it. The very process of selecting details is almost fictional, isn't it? A lot of people in Limerick say the details are not true. How do they know? They weren't there. They weren't in our kitchen. They weren't in the bedroom."
In "A Monk Swimming," however, Malachy says in effect that the "telling" of a story is all. About a tall tale that bore no resemblance to the truth, he writes, "a good story well told is a good story well told."
Asked about Malachy's book, Frank says, "I just read it. I couldn't read it when I was writing ' 'Tis.' " (Malachy says he can't read " 'Tis" while he's writing his "Singing My Him Song.")
" 'Monk,' " Frank says, "is an entirely different book from ' 'Tis.' Malachy has an entirely different style."
He says: "I like to cut away at the deadwood. If an adjective raises its head, chop it off. The story will tell itself."
Frank McCourt will be in Washington this week for a PEN/Faulkner reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Friday. He's not sure he'll have time to see the play or his brother. "Sometimes at the end of the show I get up there and do a thing with Malachy," he says. "We tell further adventures. Mostly about my mother."
Of Angela, his mother, he says, "Mainly for me there is regret that I didn't understand the sadness of her life. She lost three children. Her sufferings are beyond Medea."
He says: "She did have a sense of dignity. She didn't whine. She had a dream of one big happy family in New York, and that didn't pan out."
But in a way, it did. Three of the four brothers live in Manhattan, "in contiguous Zip codes," Malachy points out.
Frank and Malachy get together regularly. They belong to a looseknit gathering known as the First Friday Club that convenes for lunch once a month. Writers Pete Hamill and Mary Higgins Clark are also members.
The ravages of alcohol are a recurring motif in the McCourts' works. Frank says he's the only brother who still drinks. Malachy swore off alcohol in 1984. Frank enjoys an occasional glass of wine. "I do it for the economy," he says. "To keep the vineyards in business."
He couldn't keep his favorite pub in business. "The biggest hole in my life is when they closed the Lion's Head in 1996," he says, referring to a New York bar that catered to the literati. "That was my hangout. It's very hard to find a decent local anymore."
In the prologue to " 'Tis," Frank, who has turned out to be the most acclaimed of all the brothers, writes of dreaming of America as a child. One by one, his other brothers claimed to be having the same nocturnal reveries. "I appealed to my mother," Frank writes, "I told her it wasn't fair the way the whole family was invading my dreams."
In a way, his brothers continue to invade his dreams.
But he won't hear of that.
They have led distinctive lives. "Distinctive, not extraordinary," Malachy says.
Every once in a great while, the McCourts gather.
Alphie, the youngest at 58, does apartment restoration in Manhattan. He says his agent doesn't want him talking about his memoir until she's sold it. He will say, "It's about my checkered past."
Alphie saw "Blaguards" in 1996, the last time Malachy and Frank performed it together.
"I come from a very talkative family," he says. "I have to fight for space. I take the back seat and wait for the opportunity."
His brothers, he says, "are generous of spirit."
And then there's Michael, 63, who the other brothers say is the best storyteller in the family. He's recovering from a recent heart attack.
Guess what Michael does. Bingo--he runs a saloon in San Francisco. "He wanted his own territory, as the East was taken," Malachy says.
Taken by storm. Hurricane McCourt.
So will he hang up his apron, lock up the pub and write his version of life among the the McCourts? "He doesn't seem to have any desire to write," says Malachy.
"Michael," says Frank, "says he'll write a book when the other [bleepers] are dead."
CAPTION: The McCourts: From left, Frank, Michael, Alphie and Malachy in 1997. Frank's "Angela's Ashes" sequel, " 'Tis," is being released today.
CAPTION: Mickey Kelly, left, and Malachy McCourt in "A Couple of Blaguards."
CAPTION: Frank, left, and Malachy McCourt, cutting up in the former's classroom.