A Monk Swimming: A Memoir
Biography Magazine, August 1998
by Dorothy Rompalske
Article Provided By Wanda
Sometime back in the 1970's Malachy McCourt and his brother, Frank sat down at Malachy's kitchen table and began to make a list of their favorite stories. Well known throughout New York City's nightspots as raconteurs in the finest Irish tradition, the brothers came up with a number of engrossing tales about growing up desperately poor in the damp streets of Limerick, as well as plenty of others about their years in the more hospitable American city they ultimately called home. On and off for the next two decades, the McCourts could be found recounting these yarns on the stages of the Big Apple's nightclubs and bars appearing under the dubious appellation, "The Two Blackguards."
Then Frank, the older and, by all accounts, considerably more reserved brother, went one step further. After retiring from his career as a high school English teacher, he wrote down his recollections. The result was his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 memoir, Angela's Ashes, which has, at press time, spent close to two years on the New York Times best-seller list. Now Malachy, who shares his brother's superb storytelling skills, though not quite his sublime literary talents, has published his own memoir, A Monk Swimming (the book's title is a mala-propism, the author's humorous childhood mishearing of a phrase from the 'Hail Mary' prayer - blessed are thou amongst women).
Wisely, Malachy McCourt has chosen not to retreat the same ground as his more gifted brother, and he allots few paragraphs to his meager childhood years. Instead, he takes up his story in 1951, three years after Frank's left off and focuses on his early years in New York City as a rowdy 20-year-old Irish immigrant, hell-bent on living the good life after years of hardship. How much of what he writes is blarney it's hard to tell, but by Malachy's account, his strapping good looks, overflowing charm, and entertaining gift of gab opened the doors to virtually all levels of New York society, from the neatnik flophouses of Greenwich Village and Manhattan's legendary Irish pubs, P.J. Clarke's and Clavins, to the swank Upper East side penthouse apartments and beachfront retreats of the very rich. Everywhere the young Irishman turned, he found engaging conversation, eager sexual partners, and an overabundance of food and, unfortunately, alcohol - including his beloved Irish whiskey.
To support himself, Malachy first worked as a longshoresman on the piers of New York City, Jersey City, Bayonne, and Hoboken, shoulder to shoulder with immigrants from all over Europe. Nights spent pub-crawling led to a second job as a bartender and then as partner in his own place, Malachy's, which he claims was the country's first singles bar. But it was a bold move - presenting himself to producer Dermot McNamara at the Off-Broadway company Theatre East with the declaration, "I've decided I'd like to join your group as an actor" - that landed McCourt his first stage role and set him on his most notable career path as an entertainer. While he's had small parts in feature films including The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Devil's Own, McCourt is probably best known for his work on daytime TV dramas. He played the bartender on the now defunct soap Ryan's Hope, and, most recently, the terrorist Kenneally on One Life to Live.
With so much going on during his first decade in the United States, Malachy still found time to begin a disastrous marriage to a model named Linda Clair, with whom he had two children, Siobhan and Malachy Williams. The marriage ended in bitterness after Linda got fed up with her young husband's endless nights away from home drinking and carousing with a number of other women. (this memoir ends in 1963, shortly after Malachy's divorce from his first wife is final. The author, 65, is now happily remarried and the father of three more children.)
Malachy's remorse for the boorish behavior that destroyed his first marriage was no match for the powerful call of the whiskey bottle - a theme that resounds strongly throughout this memoir. To flee from his sorrows, he added traveling to drinking, embarking on yet another career, this time as a gold smuggler specializing in Asian routes. Some of the book's most colorful passages follow his efforts to avoid customs officials on four continents, despite judgment made hazy by too much alcohol and too many late nights spent with prostitutes. Malachy's ribald exploits, and his often vulgar descriptions of the women he encountered, are sure to offend some readers, yet the story springs to life when he's recounting these bawdy adventures. Ironically, they point out the book's weakness: we are frequently told how the author's great stories make him the life of the party, when what we want is to hear more of the actual tales that made him such a barroom legend.
While A Monk Swimming may not be great literature, it is, without doubt, an entertaining work off inimitable style. Malachy McCourt's flair for language is unique. His dialect - a mild Irish brogue combined with a tart New York delivery - sings. And his colorful descriptions, which can sometime border on non-sensical, usually manage to conjure up the perfect image. My favorite is his observation that former New York mayor Robert Wagner had 'a face like an abandoned animal shelter.'
But despite such levity, there is ultimately a strong message in this memoir. In a particularly powerful scene at the end of his story, when the enraged author confronts his frail, alcohol-ravaged father and lashes into him for deserting the family when Malachy was a boy, we can feel the truth that is bubbling just beneath the surface of the entire narrative. The same Irish whiskey that lubricated the author's bequiling tongue and freed him to express himself is also responsible for the pain that underminded his happiness, tore apart his home, and threatened to turn this life of the party into a lost and lonely soul.
The Brothers McCourt: Malachy (left)
shares Frank's superb storytelling skills.
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