Kevin Grandfield (review date 1 March 1998)

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

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[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)

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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)

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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)

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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 rest.

Frank escaped to the U.S. in 1949 and sent for his little brother in 1952, when Malachy was 20. Like Frank, he went into the service, came out at 22 and got a job working on the docks as a longshoreman. He had the language for it, "feckin'" this and "feckin'" that and the ability to drink. He joined the New York Rugby Football Club, which placed him across a scrimmage line from such Ivy League scions as Teddy Kennedy and R. J. Reynolds III. Soon, he was a guest in their country houses.

Malachy does the lifelong Irish pub crawl, becoming a partner in his own place, Malachy's. He stumbles into acting and is asked to appear on "The Tonight Show," just to describe his colorful night life.

Royalists, anti-Semites and Brits get a lashing, but no one is too good for Malachy. Women possess one of three attributes: youth, beauty or large breasts, and beyond that they are not much worth understanding. This proves to be the downfall of His Ebullience.

At the moment when his girlfriend threatens to become his wife, much of the color drains from their relationship. He goes through with it and has two children but draws a fuzzy distinction between infidelity and unfaithfulness. Again, if we scroll back to his Angela's Ashes childhood, there is no reason to believe he ever learned what marriage was.

"I never thought of my mother and father as married," he writes, "nor did we go out anywhere as a family." After a brief stint in Hollywood, Malachy returns to find himself unwelcome at home.

By this point, there is no denying that Malachy is starting to resemble his feckless father. The amount of alcohol consumed becomes alarming, the scenes more rage-filled and less amusing, even in their ever-artful retelling.

Malachy takes up gold smuggling and travels around the world, quaffing and dipping. He misses his children and still loves his wife. He is arrested for breaking into their apartment. He hatches plans to steal the children but never carries them out. There is no grand "closure," no epiphany, no forgiveness. But Malachy triumphs in a way.

"It's no use being Irish," he quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "unless you know the world is eventually going to break your heart."

Frank Conroy (review date 5 July 1998)

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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 struggled for many years with this material, and finally succeeded when he discovered the voice of the boy. The ability to balance that voice with the calm, almost invisible voice of the adult author allowed him to move past abstraction to the personal, the particular and the real.

At the moment, post-Titanic, there seems to be a heightened interest in things Irish, particularly Irish music, of course, but also the whole notion of Irishness. Malachy McCourt, Frank's slightly older brother, must have decided or been coerced to decide that the time was right to step forward and have a go himself. Another memoir.

Malachy McCourt came to the United States in 1952, when he was 20 years old, without money, without education and without a trade. After two years in the Army—a period he does not deal with in his book—he returned to New York and became a professional Irishman, for which he can hardly be blamed. His Irishness was all he had.

Chronologically speaking, A Monk Swimming begins where Angela's Ashes ended. It is set mostly in New York City and describes, through anecdotes, jokes, tall tales and the like, Malachy's rise through the East Side Irish subculture as bartender, actor, house Paddy for "The Tonight Show," stud and all-around charmer. He was a big-chested, bearded, handsome silver-tongued lad from Limerick, and New York ate him up. Simpler times in the 1950's, certainly, and plenty of money from the postwar boom. Malachy in any case was bursting with energy, free at last from the soul-deadening poverty of his childhood. Putting up nothing but his name, he entered into partnership with two businessmen and opened Malachy's, which, as luck would have it, became the first singles bar in the city.

Party time! What tremendous excitement for a young man from nowhere. To be in, to be connected to the action, drinking with the likes of R. J. Reynolds III, George Hamilton, Warren Beatty, Grace Kelly and Gig Young. How amazing to be hanging out with Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Alan Bates, Richard Harris and Conor Cruise O'Brien.

(Some 15 years later, 30 blocks north, a similar sort of thing happened to me and a few literary friends as our favorite bar got discovered and all sorts of powerful and famous people clamored to get in. We were in seventh heaven. There's Jackie O! There's the Mayor! There's Paul Desmond, Dick Cavett, William Styron, Lauren Bacall, Jack Lemmon! The illusion—particularly in one's 20's and 30's—is that one has arrived at the honeyed center of the Big Apple. It's a powerful dynamic, a drug, almost. One must stay till 3 in the morning. I personally wasted almost 10 years on such nonsense. It was fun, of course, but it was a complete waste of time and energy. I wasn't at the center of anything. There wasn't any center.)

So young Malachy was understandably in thrall to New York—acting with the Irish Players, barhopping, chasing the girls, tearing around, working long hours more often than not and fueling it all with alcohol. Many things happened to him. He got married, had children and drank more and more:

One problem I had with alcohol was the fact that, beyond a mild feeling of debilitation, 'twas a rare time I'd experience "hangovers," as they are called. If you are going to ingest the toxin, then 'tis well after having extracted the benefits of inebriation to dispose of that lethal leftover waste. So, before retiring, I would find a convenient porcelain altar, bend the knees to the floor, and do the reverse of Communion, in that it is better to regurgitate than to receive.

Some readers will be amused by the tone, the "Irish" humor. Most of A Monk Swimming is written in such a tone, which I take not to be Irish at all, but an imitation of an American stereotype of Irish:

I proceeded to the bar amidst the hub and the bub of satisfied diners, who were happily inhaling the fumes of cognac and the satisfying smoke of the coffin nails. Others were eagerly awaiting the slab of decomposing meat or the body of the deceased and battered denizen of the sea, whose odoriferous fumes were doused by the judicious employment of sherry, shallots and garlic.

To my mind a little of this goes a long way. If it strikes the reader as funny, so much the better, but to me it sounds like W. C. Fields falling flat. What makes reading page after page of this malarkey particularly irritating is the fact that when he wants to, when he buckles down and tries hard, Malachy McCourt is capable of writing well, as in a quick section describing getting drunk the first lime at the age of 11 and in the final two pages of the book, containing a fantasy about his father. There are distinct Hashes here and there of real writing, but many more pages of hiding behind the dated, artificially constructed persona of the blowhard Irishman.

So the booze, not surprisingly, brought young Malachy down. His marriage broke up, his welcome at the pubs grew frosty and he fell into a period of globe-trotting as a gold smuggler, a hard-drinking, two fisted, whore-chasing mule carrying gold bars in a specially designed body vest from Zurich to India. The exotic material is presented in the Paddy voice and never quite breaks through with any force.

Well, perhaps I am being too harsh. No doubt many people will enjoy A Monk Swimming for what it is, the freewheeling anecdotes and memories of a charming rascal. But the voice is not Irish in any meaningful sense. In his acknowledgments McCourt thanks "the English for stuffing their language down our throats so that we could regurgitate it in glorious colors." Who is the "we"? Is the "we" supposed to be Irish writers? Does it refer, for instance, to the extraordinary delicacy and nuance of Sean O'Faolain? The subtlety and gentle wit of someone like Frank O'Connor? Other literary artists from that magical island? If so, it is presumptuous, because in terms of Irishness, or the Irish voice, if such a thing can be said to exist, McCourt is writing parody.

Memoirs to the left of us. Memoirs to the right of us. A blizzard of memoirs good, bad and indifferent. But as the writer Deborah Eisenberg points out, the task is not primarily to have a story, "but to penetrate the story, to discard the elements of it that are merely shell, or husk—that give apparent form to the story, but actually obscure its essence. In other words the problem is to transcend the givens of a narrative."

Truer words were never spoke.

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

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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. But who can you blame? Governments and churches that are gone now? It's useless. Let those things live rent-free in your head and you'll be a lunatic. Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

These are good days for Mr. McCourt, 66, whose own memoir, A Monk Swimming, has spent six weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Not bad for a man who has had careers as an actor, radio personality and bar owner. His book starts in 1952 with his arrival in New York at the age of 20, when he sold Bibles on Fire Island, ran the first singles bar in Manhattan (named after himself), smuggled gold to India, drank, womanized and ranged his way through life as if sheer will and excess alone could make up for every childhood hurt. His writing style is brashly confident, his irreverent brand of storytelling laced with dark humor and sometimes pathos.

But it hasn't taken long for "the ubiquitous they," as Mr. McCourt calls the press and other hangers-on, to snipe at him for trying to cash in on the success of Angela's Ashes and readers' insatiable interest in the McCourt clan. Mr. McCourt couldn't care less.

"They say what I did was ego-driven and name-dropping," he says, "Damn right it is. Who am I going to write about? People I didn't meet?"

It seems impossible to imagine anyone left in that category. At Eamonn Doran on Second Avenue at 53d Street in Manhattan, where he is a regular, he greets everyone by name, settling into a booth beneath his picture with President Clinton. "I was toastmaster when he was named Irishman of the Year at the Waldorf," he says proudly. The photograph's inscription reads, "Blessings on all at Eamonn's from my pal Bill and myself, Malachy."

The chef comes from the kitchen to deliver Mr. McCourt's pot of tea personally as he signals the waitress for menus. "Would you bring me some water, love?" he asks in a tone just familiar enough to make her blush.

Yes, he's still a charmer after all these years, a fact of which he's well aware. His blue eyes are clear and smart, thatched with shaggy white brows from the Brothers Grimm. His wrists are as thick as his hands, a reminder of his days as a longshoreman. His picture on the back cover of his book shows a handsome young man, or in the parlance of America, a "cute" one. A term to which he says he at first took offense. "Cute in Ireland meant cunning and devious," he said, then smiled. "And I'm not sure that I'm not."

But past his well-honed blarney shtick, which he shines on and off again at whim, the gratifying thing about Mr. McCourt is that he can drop his professional character act and segue into a smart, emotionally direct conversation faster than you can say "Top o' the morning."

Milk of Kindness, Slums of Death

His double layers of personality seem to echo what he says about Ireland itself. Talking of the period covered in the book, he says. "That was a tumultuous time for me. I was stepping into a new life, casting off the rigidity of the church and its smothering society. The corruption and degradation covered with Irish oak. This image of a pink-cheeked mother offering cups of milk and peace and happiness wherever you go, with the road rising to meet you, and there in the slums they were dying of disease, despair, depression."

The waitress brings the water, and Mr. McCourt orders filet of sole, since he's become a vegetarian. He quit smoking 10 years ago, drinking 13 years ago. "Just sainthood now," he says dryly.

Which is the polar opposite of himself as a young adult. "All of a sudden here am I, a stripling, so freeing," he says of coming to New York, where people "trusted what I appeared to be, didn't know what a messed-up fellow I was in my head. I left school at age 13. I was illiterate with no role models. The great psychobabble today is the dysfunctional family. Well, I've never met one that was functional. In Limerick, a family that was dysfunctional was one who could afford to drink but didn't."

"I had the taste of the alcohol since I was 11," he goes on, sipping tea. "It allowed me to be clever, charming and to behave outrageously. Acting also allowed me not to be me. So I could indulge every fantasy in this paradise of America."

Every paradise has its price, and so did Mr. McCourt's. He married Linda Wachsman and they had two children. Siobhan and Malachy, which did not stop Mr. McCourt's drinking and carousing. Divorce was inevitable. He met Diana Galin in 1963, and they have been married 33 years. They have two sons, Conor and Cormac, and Mr. McCourt is stepfather to her daughter, Nina. Through the years he acted in daytime television dramas, including "Ryan's Hope" and "Search for Tomorrow," had successful shows on talk radio and tried his hand at opening more bars. "I'm a rotten businessman," he admits. "I've closed more saloons than any alcoholic." He has worked often in the theater, sometimes with his brother Frank, performing the musical revue they wrote together, A Couple of Blaguards, about their childhood.

But as he says: "At a certain age the lights begin to go out as an actor. I was not getting work, I was broke, having never held a steady job, really. When I told Frank I was thinking about writing a book, he said great." His smile is rueful. "But the money's all gone," he says of his advance. "I gave it to my kids. You can't keep it unless you give it away."

His daughter Siobhan lives in Boston with her two children. Malachy teaches diving in Bali. Nina, who is retarded, lives in a group home in New York. Conor is a filmmaker whose documentary The McCourts of Limerick was on Cinemax. He is also a police sergeant in Manhattan, where Cormac teaches integral yoga.

Their mother is studying for a master's degree in community economic development. "And she puts up with me," Mr. McCourt says gratefully.

Mr. McCourt's other favorite person is his brother Frank. "He's an amazing man," he says. "When he was 12, one of our schoolmasters said: 'My boy, you are a literary genius. My strong suggestion is to go to America. They will appreciate you there.' Over the years I've read what he's written that never got published, and I always said it still holds. He is a literary genius. Also the most nonjudgmental decent guy. He forgives."

Has he read A Monk Swimming, whose title comes from Mr. McCourt's mishearing the Hail Mary's "Blessed art thou amongst women" as "Blessed art thou, a monk swimming"? "He's writing now, so he hasn't read it," he says. "He told me: 'I can't be hearing your voice. For years it's been very loud.'"

And he laughs, though he admits he is still not free of the long-reaching shadows of Limerick. He and Frank were born in Brooklyn, but the family returned to Ireland when Malachy was 3, after the death of his 7-week-old sister, Margaret. His father drank and could not hold a job; the McCourts lived in desperate poverty both in New York and Ireland. His twin brothers also died of illness. Eventually his father left them.

"When desertion is involved, the absent parent seems romantic and caring." Mr. McCourt says. His mother, Angela, "was in a depression," he says. "My father had taken to the alcohol, and she was helpless in the face of it. My mother wanted to go back to Ireland after Margaret died. And then she was thrown out of one slum and only found shelter in another with a drunken beast of a thing who would sit tearing at a steak with his bare hands and throw meat to the dog while we children sat hungry. Then he beats us and sleeps with my mother so we could hear it. The horrors of that, the shame. There was a sadness of that for years and years. I once wrote to her and said I loved her. She laughed at it. She couldn't accept that.

"Coming out of that life, the things that get you are the two evils of shame on one shoulder, the demon fear on the other. Shame says you came from nothing, you're nobody, they'll find you out for what you and your mother have done. Fear says what's the use of bothering, drink as much as you can, dull the pain. As a result shame takes care of the past, fear takes care of the future and there's no living in the present." He sighs. "The thing about the low self-esteem rubbish is thinking you have no gifts. Eventually I became my father, who I hated the most."

There has been some healing, though. The success of both his book and his brother's had helped, of course. And while Conor McCourt was researching his documentary, he located the grave in Queens where Margaret was buried.

"We all went out, Frank, Alphie, Mike and myself," Mr. McCourt says, referring to his surviving brothers. "It was a pauper's grave. My wife, Diana, had decided to keep some of Angela's ashes in our house, even after we had scattered them. But when Conor found the grave, we brought the ashes and reunited the mother and the daughter after 64 years." His eyes fill. "It still makes me weep to think about it. The recognition that there was something of that child. We honored her and we honored my mother."

He starts on his third pot of tea, and soon enough the talk returns to Ireland. "I picked up an old man on the road once," Mr. McCourt says, "during the hardest driving rain. When he got out he said: 'Thank you sir for your kindness. May you have a happy death.'"

He smiles. "When you think about it, a happy death means you had a happy life. And I think I have. These days, the simple things are appealing. Diana, our closeness and love. The grandchildren. I'm having my dream, one day at a time. I've learned acceptance and letting go and to just keep a sense of humor about this absurd condition."

Which is?

"That we're a species with a hundred percent mortality rate and not one of us accepts it. So, it's true. Live every day as if it's going to be your last, and one day, you'll be right."

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Introduction