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December 1999

Tis A Memoir

Review of Frank McCourt's second novel - Tis A Memoir

Tis: A Memoir*** by Frank McCourt Scribner, 1999 Three years ago, Frank McCourt had an overnight success with his Pulitzer Prize-winning childhood memoir Angela’s Ashes, in which he recalled the hardships of growing up poverty-stricken and fatherless in Limerick, Ireland. In his eagerly awaited sequel, ’Tis, McCourt literally picks up where Angela’s Ashes left off, as the title repeats the last word of his first book. Leaving Ireland behind in 1949 at the age of 19 and setting out for the “land of opportunities,” the author tells the story of his American journey. Once again, McCourt proves he has an eye for colorful, edgy characters, an ear for dialogue, as well as a knack for relating past encounters and anecdotes, in turn heart-warming and heartbreaking. One of the book’s most moving scenes is when Frank, having just arrived in New York, decides to treat himself to a rare evening at the movies, only to see the evening end in disaster when he tries to smuggle a snack into the cinema. Lonely, humiliated and confused about the unexpected difficulties he encounters in America, he finds that lying in bed and dreaming of the familiar life in Limerick, the place he was so happy to leave, is one of the few pleasures he can afford. With no money or secondary education and a thick Irish accent that always reveals him as a recent immigrant, Frank finds himself at the bottom of the social ladder. His first job is cleaning the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, and over the next years he moves through a succession of menial jobs at the docks and does a stint with the army that sends him abroad. Over the years he secretly dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher. And even though he never went to high school, he somehow manages to talk his way into NYU, going to class during the day and working at the harbor warehouses at night. Envying his fellow students for their easy smiles and self-assured philosophizing, he thinks that he will never be one of them. He feels ignorant while they “argue about the meaning of everything, life, the existence of God, the terrible state of the world, and you never know when someone is going to drop in the one word that gives everyone the deep serious look, existentialism.” Frank may not know “what makes Camus so sad,” but he walks through the world with an open mind. He is always ready to learn from the most diverse teachers, whether it’s a bartender, who tells him not to come back until he has read the great Irish writers, two young men at his boarding house who introduce him to jazz or an old Jamaican who lectures him on the importance of a good education. ’Tis is a brilliant memoir, tightly-woven and replete with irrepressible humor. More upbeat than Angela’s Ashes, it is certainly a worthy successor. <<<

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