Frank McCourt Kvetching Again

Angela's Ashes sold millions and won the Pulitzer Prize. I broke my own rule about reading books because they are popular, and closing the book I immediately remembered why I first invented the rule. Never having used the moniker Irish-American and not particularly oppressed by my Catholic upbringing, I found very little in McCourt's memoir that related to my life. Call me jaded, but I found myself asking, Who cares?

When a friend gave me McCourt's newest volume, Teacher Man, because I am a teacher as is she, I groaned silently. I finally read it and found McCourt's description of teaching often spot on. He captures the both the euphoric heights and the melancholic depths of teaching. When describing the lessons that worked, the students' reaction, that feeling of affecting someone's life forever, he is at his very best. In one instance, he uses the parts of a ball point pen to explain how grammar works, and even his antagonistic department chairman offers an atypical moment of praise for "hitting pedagogical paydirt."

McCourt humorously describes the most difficult obstacle in teaching, parents. Toward end of his career, while teaching at the exclusive Stuyvesant High School, a colleague offers a pointed insight into parents and the perceived role of the teacher:
"All they care about is success and money, money, money, says Connie. They have expectations for their kids, high hopes, and we're like workers on an assembly line sticking a little part in here, another little part in there till the tinished product comes out at the end all ready to perform for parent and corporation."
The deficiency of Teacher Man is McCourt's description of teaching comprises only about half the book. The other half is a melange of self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-pity. McCourt is angryat himself, at Ireland, at the Catholic Church, at authority of all kindsand his memoir is the worst sort of introspection. There are no great discoveries, and he is almost as miserable at the end as he was at the beginning.

Teacher Man will be read by millions no doubt, by fans of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis as well as just about everyone in education, but be warned. This is not a memoir of teaching; it is just more of Frank McCourt ruminating on his miserable life. "You don't have to be poor and Catholic and Irish to be miserable," he tells his students, "but it gives you something to write about and an excuse for drinking." Three books is enough writing, maybe he should just get to the drinking.


Anonymous said…
Couldn't agree with you more. At times midly amusing and honest and at times boring and blatantly dishonest, but mostly he waxed lyrical about how unfortunate he was in his upbringing. Surprised by the success of the book, but then these days success is procured by massive marketing campaigns forced down a consuming public's throat and not based on merit.

-A Londoner with an Irish past.
Anonymous said…
Those who have had normal or better childhoods may not be able to understand all the self-loathing and self-pity, but others who have been through similar things can really relate to his story. I'm one of those unfortunate souls blessed with a similar past.

Massive marketing campaign or not, it doesn't change the fact that McCourt had inspired some few million people out there.