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Brother Also Rises From the 'Ashes'

A MONK SWIMMING, by Malachy McCourt, Hyperion, $23.95, 292 pages

June 08, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Angela's Ashes" got you down?

Here's the antidote, written by Frank McCourt's black sheep of a little brother, Malachy--more a tsunami of entertaining, reckless verbiage than a book--the plot a wobbly line of stories drawn through a drunken haze of a life. About the only thing the McCourt brothers have in common is the most terrifying childhood on public record. Oprah wouldn't know how to begin with this one.

Malachy's cure is the hair of the dog. Nothing is taken seriously in his first three decades of life as he "quaffs," he "dips his wick," he blarneys his way into parties, clubs, New York society, bartending jobs, beds all over town. If you're a recovering "Angela's Ashes" reader, your primary emotion is gratefulness that he has managed to survive at all, much less with a resilient sense of humor.

"When I was growing up in Limerick," writes Malachy, in one of a limited number of introspective and remorseful bits, "my ambition was to come to America and become a convict, because in prison I'd have shoes, a bed to myself . . . that no little brothers had pissed on." Malachy comes close to this goal, but his one taste of prison puts the effort, if not the rebellious spirit, to rest.

Frank escaped to the U.S. in 1949 and sent for his little brother in 1952, when Malachy was 20. Like Frank, he went into the service, came out at 22 and got a job working on the docks as a longshoreman. He had the language for it, "feckin' " this and "feckin' " that and the ability to drink. He joined the New York Rugby Football Club, which placed him across a scrimmage line from such Ivy League scions as Teddy Kennedy and R.J. Reynolds III. Soon, he was a guest in their country houses.

Malachy does the lifelong Irish pub crawl, becoming a partner in his own place, Malachy's. He stumbles into acting and is asked to appear on "The Tonight Show," just to describe his colorful night life.

Royalists, anti-Semites and Brits get a lashing, but no one is too good for Malachy. Women possess one of three attributes: youth, beauty or large breasts, and beyond that they are not much worth understanding. This proves to be the downfall of His Ebullience.

At the moment when his girlfriend threatens to become his wife, much of the color drains from their relationship. He goes through with it and has two children but draws a fuzzy distinction between infidelity and unfaithfulness. Again, if we scroll back to his "Angela's Ashes" childhood, there is no reason to believe he ever learned what marriage was.

"I never thought of my mother and father as married," he writes, "nor did we go out anywhere as a family." After a brief stint in Hollywood, Malachy returns to find himself unwelcome at home.

By this point, there is no denying that Malachy is starting to resemble his feckless father. The amount of alcohol consumed becomes alarming, the scenes more rage-filled and less amusing, even in their ever-artful retelling.

Malachy takes up gold smuggling and travels around the world, quaffing and dipping. He misses his children and still loves his wife. He is arrested for breaking into their apartment. He hatches plans to steal the children but never carries them out. There is no grand "closure," no epiphany, no forgiveness. But Malachy triumphs in a way.

"It's no use being Irish," he quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "unless you know the world is eventually going to break your heart."

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