McCourt, Frank. Teacher Man
Frank McCourt’s memoir on his teaching experience is divided into three Parts, the first and longest dealing with his experience of surviving eight years at McKee Vocational and Technical School, Staten Island. In Part Two he moves to New York Community College and in Part Three, after two years studying in Dublin for an aborted PhD at Trinity College, he returns to America to become a Creative Writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School. For most of the book Frank is in the classroom, facing non-academic pupils who yearn to be free of discipline and routine. He learns their tricks and indeed, much to the detriment of his reputation as a teacher, encourages their bid for freedom. If they want stories about his life of poverty in Ireland he’ll tell them, if they want outside activities, such as movie-going, he’ll take them and even pay for them from his meagre earnings. Frank is a very earnest and honest man, not afraid to admit ignorance, not afraid of losing dignity and devoted to the thankless task of what he believes in, something honorifically known as teaching.
In between trudging through mountains of illiterate scripts, Frank manages to tell the reader that he got married, had two children and got divorced; but the focus of the book is on that strange routine and for the most part useless activity of ‘teaching,’ in other words occupying and entertaining the disinterested and cheeky adolescents before him. He is the Pied Piper leading his charges to another world - a world of something called ‘culture,’ where words on the page are substituted for popcorn and candy. It’s a heroic journey, but one founded on the belief and enthusiasm of one man - Frank McCourt. Although frequently reminded of the importance of sticking to the syllabus, Frank goes his own way. Like the maverick schoolmaster AS Neill, Frank believes in Hearts not Heads in the School. The reader empathises with him and with his stand against snobs such as the academic Dahlberg, who asks Frank what he’s reading. Frank replies O’Casey, whose natural writing about growing up in Dublin even matched the work of the ancient masters. ‘If you admire so-called natural writing you can always scrutinize the walls of a public lavatory,’ was Dahlberg’s riposte. ‘My face was hot and I blurted, “O’Casey fought his way out of the slums of Dublin. He was half blind. He’s a … a … champion of the worker …. He’s as good as you anytime. The whole world knows Sean O’Casey. Who ever heard of you?” [speech marks added] To which Dahlberg invites him to leave the party.
Dr Paul C O'Rourke DDS is a New York dentist. He's brash, he's arrogant and he's got a view on pretty much everything. He has a failed relationship with his practice manager Connie and an unhealthy obsession with the Boston Red Sox.
In this comic novel, O'Rourke initially comes across as a 50 something dinosaur, taking pride in his technophobia, eschewing the internet and popular culture. As the narrative goes on, however, it seems that O'Rourke is more likely to be in his 30s and not quite as ruddy ruddy as he makes out. Nevertheless, it is a surprise to him when he finds his dental practice has developed a website that focuses as much on some obscure religious tracts as on the dentistry. What follows is a bizarre and comic take of finding out who is posting the material and why.
This all provides a great backdrop for analysing O'Rourke's own hollow, lonely existence and his failed relationships. Despite his atheism, O'Rourke seems to have flirted with Judaism in an effort to get closer to Connie and her family. Hence, he has a conflicted reaction to the religious content of his hacked website: on the one hand he is appalled, whilst on the other hand he is intrigued. There's quite a lot of philosophy, a lot of metaphysics, most of it spurious but interspersed with dental anecdotes and meetings with one of America's richest men. The dental anecdotes are hilarious and I especially loved the one about the disgruntled customer and the cave dwellers.
It's difficult to categorise Decent Hour. It's not so much about the story as about the voice. Whether you get on with it depends totally on whether or not you get on with O'Rourke's narration. In this sense, it's a bit like James Kelman. Fortunately I loved the voice, even though O'Rourke is a supercilious, snivelling wretch who would not be fit to polish my shoes, let alone polish my teeth.
The Blazing World is presented as a series of documents charting the life of Harriet (Harry) Burden, a lesser known New York artist. These documents, drawing heavily on a series of notebooks kept by Burden herself, have supposedly been collated by an art historian. The broad thrust of the piece is that Burden felt herself marginalised as a woman and therefore chose three men, each to present one of her installations as their own work. These three collections garnered favourable reviews.
As so often happens in these assorted document type novels (Michael Arditti’s Unity comes to mind), the initial pretext soon wears thin. The documents, interviews, letters and diaries all go into a level of personal detail and cod-philosophy when, in real life, they would focus far more on facts and public events. As also tends to happen in such works, the narrative voice is not sufficiently different from source to source. It all feels like it was drafted by a single pen, working towards a single goal. Harry’s notebooks, in particular, seem to be filled with a linear narrative, despite being dispersed over multiple volumes kept simultaneously, and offer verbiose personal justification for everything.
The writing is supposed to be over the top, pretentious. It’s a satire of modern art and one presumes the frequent digressions into philosophy (Kirkegaard seems to be a favourite) are presumably supposed to look hyperbolic when used to justify art installations that would otherwise not look out of place in a Blue Peter dollhouse.
The characters are similarly supposed to be grotesque: a stupid young boy called Anton Tish who seems to have escaped from Warhol’s Factory; a gay black dandy who had adopted the name of Phineas Q Eldridge; and a genuine artist called Rune who is busy trying to forget his austere Norwegian heritage. Then we have Bruno, Harry’s partner and wannabe poet; we have dippy hippy chicks; bisexual art dealers; art journos; wealthy collectors… Despite their tendency to speak with the same voice, this motley assortment of characters feels real and diverse enough to sustain the piece. This, harnessed with some tragi-comic storylines and some great set pieces, breathe life into what keeps threatening to be (but never becomes) a snore-a-thon.
This is not a life-changing novel and the plot is thin. The academic framing device comes to nothing – there are no conclusions and no thesis. But it is brimming with ideas and many of them are presented in a colourful, accessible fashion. Sometimes the ideas seem to trip over one another and the reader does have to wade through a lot of Tish to get to them, but overall it is worth it. ****0
A Naked Singularity is a strange novel. It is narrated by Casi, a maverick and very junior defense attorney in New York state. Casi is of Colombian heritage and goes to some effort to conceal his last name. He has a distinctive voice that he uses both to discuss the minutiae of his life (creating a feeling of being “Almost There”) and to depart into lengthy digressions.
Overall, the novel is very good, has an unusual feel and creates atmosphere well.
Remarkably, considering it has been shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, A Naked Singularity was first released as a self-published novel. And in some ways it does show. Firstly, the novel is way too long. At 860 pages, the reader has long since got the basic idea and by the end, it does feel a bit like being beaten about the head by the same good ideas, over and over again. Speaking of being beaten about the head, there are lengthy sections about middleweight boxing. This might be an indication of Casi’s non-white, non-middle class background or it might be an extended metaphor about people who hang on too long, but the boxing takes up way too many pages on what is basically straight biography. The pacing, too, is wrong with the plotty bit being compressed into a short piece near the middle, arriving way too late and finishing too soon, leaving pages and pages of psychobabble to wind up the novel.
These failings are obvious, but can be forgiven to some extent by the overall quality and feel of the novel. It does have a kind of crime/thriller element but it is so much more. The great length and enormous detail allow a study of a man and the seamy, slippery world he inhabits. The stream of consciousness narration is used to really present a full, complex character who manages to avoid pigeon-holing himself as being either good or bad. He is shades of grey.
The storyline rests on some wonderful understatement and innuendo. In particular, for example, the enigmatic Ballena - you have to get near the end to meet him - is never really describes, except in terms of the shadow he creates. Yet he is far more impressive for not being described - for allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.
There are also plenty of philosophical insights into the justice system and the petty criminal underclass, illustrated by a veritable circus troupe of unfortunates. We see people losing years of their lives for petty misdemeanours under the harsh US penal system. We get to see a compare/contrast example of a death row inmate in Alabama that is heartbreaking in the sensitive, understated way it is presented.
The positives far outweigh the negatives, and the voice is strong enough and interesting enough to carry through the uneven pacing. I just wish the novel had been able to benefit from a professional edit.