The near-death laughter of Malachy McCourt

There’s no stopping Malachy McCourt. And there’s no wanting to.

He’s 86 years old, a lifelong practitioner of the Irish arts of storytelling, acting and, rather more recently, writing. The subject of his new memoir is death: an inevitability that few have addressed so directly, honestly or humorously. Yes, I said “humorously.” Even hilariously. You don’t write a book titled Death Need Not Be Fatal without a grin on your face.

Grinning in the face of calamity has been a condition that McCourt has endured from his earliest days, as anyone knows who has read his older brother Frank’s searing memoir of Dickensian poverty and loss, Angela’s Ashes. The memory of those cold, rain-soaked and lonely days would make any other man of his years predictably angry and not a wee bit bitter.

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But predictability is not McCourt’s strong suit. Looking back over a tumultuously varied life with a sharp, knowing eye, he’s an alchemist who turns his life’s multiple calamities and absurdities into the gold of sharply told stories. The result is as delightful to read as it was to hear last week over a pot of hot tea in his family’s summer rental in deepest Rhinebeck. But first, a bit of advice from the brink: “I always say, ‘Live each day as if it were your last – and one day, you’ll be right!’”

That punchline brings a gleeful cackle from McCourt, the way it punctures the head-nodding solemnity of advice that we’ve all heard. Puncturing is something that McCourt excels at: puncturing the ostentatious, the sanctimonious and the plain stupid. His genial madness has been on display since his early days on radio and TV, and it has never abated.

As a writer – though not as an actor, soap opera star, freelance raconteur, radio talk-show host, candidate for governor nor saloonkeeper – he was a late bloomer: “I had no intention of being a writer. I was in the acting trade. I wasn’t published until I was 66,” when he wrote A Monk Swimming, his best-selling book of reminiscences.

Recipient of the Irish American Writers & Artists’ Lifetime Achievement Award & Irish bon vivant, McCourt will be at Oblong Books and Music in Rhinebeck signing copies of his literary autobiography Death Need Not Be Fatal on August 17 at 6 p.m. He’ll also be at Rhinebeck’s Starr Library on August 23 at 7 p.m.

McCourt makes the book-writing trade seem less laborious than others have described it. (He has written four other books.) “You know what Bob Dylan said? ‘I don’t write songs. I write them down.’ That’s all I do. It just rolls out.”

Books by others, he said, have long provided him with a lifeline. “I’ve always had this private thing of not having a formal education, because I failed everything. I left school when I was 13. But I got a love of reading very early; that was my saving.” To this day, he said, he doesn’t know the rules of grammar, “But, I figure, why put editors out of work?”

That said, he eagerly offered a few tips for those practicing the writing trade: “Never judge your material. You’ll find it guilty. And your first thought is as good as your last thought, so keep going. And if editors don’t like it, and they can give you a good reason, well, then, take it out, and there you are.”

He considered a couple of alternate titles for the new book, including I Read Your Brother Frank’s Book. And this: “In Ireland, when you get to be my age, they say you’re in the departure lounge. So I was gonna call it Tales from the Departure Lounge, but we vetoed that because people might think it was about airline travel – which, these days, is as close to death as you can get.”

“Having been close to death most of my life, somebody said to me one time, ‘What’s the death rate in Limerick?’ And it’s the same as everywhere else: one per person.”

He talks about the deaths of his mother and brothers and sisters, ranging back to his earliest days. It raises the ghost of what it was like to be poverty-stricken in Ireland. His voice comes close to a whisper as he describes his childhood: “There’s a difference between being poor and poverty. Poverty is a disease. Gives you no hope. And you’re embarrassed. You’re humiliated at every turn. And that’s the thing about poverty: It’s very hard to lift your head up, to look up.”

“What’s interesting about a poverty-stricken life? It’s nothing. Nothing seems to go on, except the interruption, the constant interruption of death. Eleven of my classmates died… Frank used to say he belonged to the Death-of-the-Month Club.”

His warm laugh describes how much he relishes the fact that his family survived the cold hell of such a life. “There’s an entirely different view of death over there. Y’know, here, if you say the word ‘death,’ it’s like saying somebody has got syphilis or something: euphemisms by the hundreds.” Disbelief joins a rising urge to laugh as he lists a choice selection of such: “Passed away, passed on, in God’s arms, at peace, under the ground, reposing, gone with the Lord, resting in peace, under the sod, kicked the bucket, bought the farm…It just goes on and on and on.”

No stranger to death in his childhood, the more recent deaths of his brothers moved him to write the new book. Frank died about six years ago. His brother Mike died nearly two years ago, followed by his brother Alfie a year ago.

He recalled another death in the family – the death of his mother Angela in 1981 – by way of illustrating the weirdness of the American way of death. “She was in the hospital dying of emphysema at Lenox Hill. So we’re on the deathwatch and she was complaining and she said, ‘They allow abortions in this country and they won’t let a person die.’”

“And I said to the doctor, I said, ‘You know, you’ve got to pull out those tubes and needles.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘we can’t do that. Ethics, the law and so forth.’ I said to him, ‘Don’t worry, doctor; we come from a long line of dead people.’” The doctor was left with little more to do than walk, rapidly, down the hall.

“So I’m sitting with Angela in the middle of the night. She’s in a coma and she wakes up and I’m at the end of the bed and she opens one eye and looks at me. ‘What are ye doing there?’ It’s about three o’clock in the morning. I said I thought you might die tonight. And she said, ‘I might and I might not. But that’s my business. Why don’t you go home to your bed?’” So McCourt did as his mother said, and about two hours later, he got the call: She had died.

“I guess she wanted privacy. I guess she thought it would be rude to go while I was sitting there, leaving me alone.” He shook his head at the memory and smiled. “She had a certain peasant politeness.”

He listed the physical afflictions that have already struck him: prostate cancer, a brain tumor, gout. He has got a new knee and new hip, nine heart stents and a disease called IBM, which stands for Inclusive Body Myositis: a progressive muscular disease. He uses a walker to get around these days. “So there’s all of that,” he says with a shrug.

Certainly, he has taken no comfort from the Catholic religion: “Organized religion has all the elements of organized crime, except the compassion” is the kindest thing he has to say about the religion of his youth. But he has found places, practices and people – especially his wife of 52 years, Diana – that keep him going. Among the places of comfort that he has found is a twice-monthly salon meeting with mostly Irish and Irish-American writers in New York City, where reading and hearing the work of others offer refreshment.

In recounting a recent monthlong stay in a New York rehab center that he describes as part nursing home, part old folks’ home, he sounds a bit mystified, even querulous. “You know, they say ‘old folks’ and I don’t know what to think. I don’t consider myself ‘old folks,’ being in possession of the head” – he points to it – “I may be a walking human tenement, but the roof is still on.”

Malachy McCourt booksigning of Death Need Not Be Fatal on Thursday, August 17 at 6 p.m. at Oblong Books and Music, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-0500, www.oblongbooks.com. He’ll also be at the Starr Library on Wednesday, August 23 at 7 p.m. at 68 West Market Street in Rhinebeck. For more information, call 876-4030 or visit www.starrlibrary.org.

 

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