A Monk Swimming

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Inevitably A MONK SWIMMING, by Malachy McCourt, will be compared with ANGELA’S ASHES (1997), the memoir written by his older brother Frank, but they do not tell the same story. Malachy, who was born in the United States but grew up in Ireland, sums up his brother’s book in two pages and then begins a series of ribald anecdotes about his return to America. Briefly interspersed are memories of Ireland, where he left school at thirteen after failing nearly everything but reading and writing. He remains painfully aware of his escape from the slums of Limerick.

McCourt first works as a longshoreman on the New York docks and tends bar, eventually becoming co-owner of an East Side saloon bearing his name. He points out that successful saloonkeepers rarely drink, but as an unrepentant alcoholic he is the exception, at least until his partners run out of patience. A remarkable number of his acquaintances from this time wind up in asylums or dead, prematurely pickled.

By accident he stumbles into a role in an Off-Broadway play, which begins his acting career. Impervious to growing debts and family obligations, he goes off to Hollywood in search of a film role. Then he briefly becomes a courier, smuggling gold from Zurich to Bombay, with side trips to Nairobi, Karachi, and other exotic locations. He is always popular, though with an increasing awareness that he has crossed the line.

McCourt is a charmer, the life of the party, someone who knows how to tell a good story and enjoys it. His humor has a bitter edge, but he remains a likeable rogue, happily getting even with a lot of people.