Malachy McCourt Essay - Critical Essays

McCourt, Malachy


Malachy McCourt A Monk Swimming

Malachy McCourt is an Irish-American actor and writer.

Malachy McCourt is an engaging storyteller and "professional Irishman," as one reviewer put it. His novel A Monk Swimming, the title of which is a deformation of the Hail Mary's "blessed are thou amongst women," is a combination of narrative fiction, joke writing and biography. In it McCourt displays his storytelling talents and reveals the source of his material—a bleak, poverty-stricken childhood and the accomplishments and failings of his adult life. McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1932 to Irish parents, but the family returned to Ireland after the death of Malachy's seven-year-old sister. He is the brother of Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes—a bestseller that gave readers touching depictions of Irish poverty. A life of hardship marked by his father's drinking and chronic unemployment left McCourt with a battered sense of self, which he dulled with alcohol from age 11. Nonetheless, with his boisterous charm and way with words, McCourt returned to America in 1952 and went from a longshoreman job to a career as an actor in the theatre in Manhattan's Upper East Side. He co-wrote a stage piece with his more contemplative brother titled A Couple of Blaguards and appeared on television broadcasts such as the Jack Paar Show. He also gained renown among New York society as owner of the city's first singles' club, Malachy's. In A Monk Swimming, McCourt delivers pithy statements such as "there is no difference between the rich and the poor, except poverty," playful deformations of language—as evidenced by the title—and bitingly candid confessions such as "my ambition was to come to America and become a convict, because in prison I'd have shoes, a bed to myself … that no little brothers had pissed on." McCourl's narrative of his experience of the American dream has attracted many readers, but critical commentary on his work's defining features is mixed. A commentator in Kirkus Reviews admitted that "Malachy can spin a yarn and he can pile on the clever euphemisms and circumlocutions of the tavern philosopher with the greatest ease," but in terms of food for thought he is seen to offer little more than "a few tired aperçus." Susan Salter Reynolds qualified A Monk Swimming as "more a tsunami of entertaining, reckless verbiage than a book," and Frank Conroy complained that the book is "an imitation of an American stereotype of Irish," and that the style "sounds like W. C. Fields falling flat." However, Emily Mitchell observed that McCourt's saving grace is his "self-deprecating humor and boisterous love of the mother tongue.


Kevin Grandfield (review date 1 March 1998)

SOURCE: "Upfront: Advance Reviews," in Booklist, March 1, 1998, p. 1043.

[The following review provides a sketch of the contents of A Monk Swimming.]

Coat-tailing the success of brother and performance partner Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes (1996), Malachy [McCourt] weighs in with his own memoir, recounting his raucous early days in the U.S. Picking up after the childhood so vividly described in Angela's Ashes, A Monk Swimming (a mishearing of the Hail Mary phrase "Blessed art thou amongst women") recounts the unlikely tales of Malachy's serendipitous success as an actor and a bar owner after arriving in New York penniless and uneducated. Amidst tales of his drinking and general carousing with the likes of Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Jack Paar, and Robert Mitchum, Malachy also tells of his unexpected meeting with the queen of England, rooming with a psychotic socialite, and disastrous first marriage and inability to accept its demise. By far the most interesting section is the vivid portrayal of smuggling gold bars from Zurich to India, which he did when desperate for a job. The language and storytelling have the indelible Irish lilt and genius for irony. They range from understated to downright scatological, and they are always paced for maximum payoff. The success of Frank's book and the huge media blitz for this one should make it a much-requested title, but those who appreciated the profundity of Angela's Ashes will be disappointed by this less meaty memoir.

Publishers Weekly (review date 23 March 1998)

SOURCE: A review of A Monk Swimming, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 12, March 23, 1998, p. 83.

[The following review highlights the biographical progression in A Monk Swimming.]

In Angela's Ashes, the author's older brother Frank McCourt recounted the misery and heartbreak of growing up in Limerick, Ireland, in the 1930s and '40s. Now it's Malachy's turn [in A Monk Swimming] to tell the story of his own immigration to New York City in 1952 and how he started on his American dream by working on the docks. Before long his dire need to quench his thespian thirst takes him to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he finds "there is no difference between the rich and the poor, except poverty." Soon he's acting in plays, appearing on the Jack Paar Show and becoming a partner in a saloon called, of course, Malachy's. He hooks up with a "Jewish Presbyterian" woman named Linda, quickly marries her and within a year they have two children. But marriage has anything but a steadying effect on McCourt. His virulent alcoholism and need for attention destroy his marriage as he leaps around the globe trying to escape his responsibilities—much as his namesake father had done. Along the way we are treated to hilarious encounters with actors Richard Harris and Robert Mitchum in Hollywood, and witness McCourt seducing young maidens in Ibiza. For good measure, there's also a bit of gold smuggling and whoring in India. This is a book that shows Malachy the blasphemer at his best, ridiculing the contributions of the British to the world ("Bloodshed, Snobocracy, and Bureaucracy") and condemning the supposed sexual proclivities of the late Francis Cardinal Spellman ("the Cardinal of Vaseline"). The memoir, which covers ground through 1963, will have readers smiling and laughing constantly. And although likely destined for the bestseller lists, the book, with its frequent references to drinking and whoring, may shock those who worshipped Angela's Ashes.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 April 1998)

SOURCE: A review of A Monk Swimming, in Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1998, p. 557.

[The following review compares Malachy McCourt's writing and storytelling to that of his brother Frank.]

Malachy [McCourt] picks up the family story—well, his part of it anyway—where older brother Frank left off in Angela's Ashes.

The McCourts lived in direst poverty in Limerick. Ireland, with their father (for whom Malachy was named) a charming but irresponsible drunk who deserted the family during WWII. In his own story, Malachy takes up matters with his arrival in New York City courtesy of Frank. After a brief stint in the army (about which he says almost nothing), Malachy becomes a longshoreman before drifting, almost inadvertently, into a dual career of raconteur-actor and minor-celebrity barkeep. And a raconteur he is; Malachy is the sort of professional Irishman who is trotted out to entertain the "quality" with his blarney-rich hijinks, songs, and drunken antics. In short, he's a somewhat more introspective (and better-read) version of his father. Therein lies the book's shortcoming. If readers are looking for the tormented and introspective recollections of Frank, they will be sorely disappointed. Malachy can spin a yarn and he can pile on the clover euphemisms and circumlocutions of the tavern philosopher with the greatest of ease, but a rollicking, roistering, roaring boy like him cannot be expected to turn his eyes inward for more than a few tired aperçus about what a bad husband and father he was. It's entirely appropriate that the two longest sections of the book are devoted to the collapse of his first marriage under the weight of his great thirsts and lusts, and a bizarre episode in which he smuggled gold ingots to India. The latter is more vividly told, a goofy adventure fueled by booze, but the former, by far the more important event, is recounted in a curdled tone of self-pity and self-flagellation.

Sporadically amusing, but just as often infuriating. Malachy is the entertainer in the family, but Frank is the writer.

Susan Salter Reynolds (review date 8 June 1998)

SOURCE: "Brother Also Rises from the Ashes," in Los Angeles Times, June 8, 1998, p. E4.

[In the following review, Reynolds addresses the tone of the biographical storytelling in A Monk Swimming.]

Angela 's Ashes got you down?

Here's the antidote [A Monk Swimming], written by Frank McCourt's black sheep of a little brother. Malachy—more a tsunami of entertaining, reckless verbiage than a book—the plot a wobbly line of stories drawn through a drunken haze of a life. About the only thing the McCourt brothers have in common is the most terrifying childhood on public record. Oprah wouldn't know how to begin with this one.

Malachy's cure is the hair of the dog. Nothing is taken seriously in his first three decades of life as he "quaffs," he "dips his wick," he blarneys his way—into parties, clubs, New York society, bartending jobs, beds all over town. If you're a recovering Angela's Ashes reader, your primary emotion is gratefulness that he has managed to survive at all, much less with a resilient sense of humor.

"When I was growing up in Limerick," writes Malachy, in one of a limited number of introspective and remorseful bits, "my ambition was to come to America and become a convict, because in prison I'd have shoes, a bed to myself … that no little brothers had pissed on." Malachy comes close to this goal, but his one taste of prison puts the effort, if not the rebellious spirit, to...

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Frank Conroy (review date 5 July 1998)

SOURCE: "Angela's Second Boy," in New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1998, pp. 5N-5L.

[In the following review, Conroy looks at the strengths and weaknesses of A Monk Swimming.]

The extraordinary public success of Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, was due no doubt in some small measure to good luck—the temper of the times being unusually receptive to memoir—but much more, I think, because it was a closely observed, beautifully written, esthetically satisfying rendering of an exotic world of a particular kind of poverty: that is, white, Irish poverty, which for most American readers had up until then been pretty much an abstraction. Frank McCourt...

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Malachy McCourt and Alex Witchel (interview date 29 July 1998)

SOURCE: "How a Rogue Turns Himself Into a Saint," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 147, July 29, 1998, p. B1.

[In the following interview, McCourt and Witchel discuss the circumstances and consequences of McCourt's childhood, elaborating on passages from A Monk Swimming.]

Malachy McCourt says his railing days are over. "I find a murderous rage in my heart of Limerick, the humiliation of coming out of the slums," he says of his hometown in Ireland, the setting of his brother Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir. Angela's Ashes. "It made you feel like nothing and there was no place to go but down. It was assumed we'd be low-class the rest of our lives....

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