A Monk Swimming (Amongst Women) by Malachy McCourt

The life and times of a drunkard Irishman. Set in Manhattan in the 50’s, the memoir follows the fantastical journey of a 20-something fresh Irish immigrant who goes from zero to big city celebrity in six years. In a sense, it is a fairy tale. It’s like the tale about going to Vegas and turning $100 into $100K and getting comp’ed a two-story penthouse and getting women to party in it. It’s like the tale about an ugly nerd who winds up winning the beautiful head cheerleader. It’s basically the best-case scenario for any fresh migrant worker, a little hard work and lot of amazing luck. Of course, to an extent, America was the land of opportunity including during the 50’s, but don’t expect to live this guy’s life.

Malachy also happens to be Irish and born in abject poverty with siblings dying of disease. There is something about the downtrodden oppressed cultures like the Irish, Russian, Jews, and Koreans. They tend to be more emotional extremists, but they also have tendency for art and adventurous, booze-soaked lives. One of the best features of this novel is the Irish lyrical adjective-heavy style. “Jasus Christ Almighty in Heaven above! ‘My good man,’ is it? If the two of ye don’t hop out of this fecking pub, ’tis the way I’ll be coming around to the door of that snug, and if I find it still being contaminated by the presence of two poxy, scabby-eyed, guttersniping Kaffirs from the dirtiest lanes of Limerick, I will drive the toes of my shoes so far up each of yeer assholes, that I will be forced to wear ye as shoes until God calls me to account on the Judgment Day. Fuck off out of here!”    Unlike Roddy Doyle, however, the author doesn’t write in a heavy Irish accent that in the case of Doyle is often difficult to read and understand but you do get the sense that the narrator has a good Irish accent.

He rubs elbows with some of the most famous actors of the day including Grace Kelly. He gains notoriety when he decides to do theater acting and gets interviewed on TV. One drawback is the heavy monologue. While it is entertaining and almost poetic, it can be a little drawn out sometimes like reading someone’s diary. The descriptions of the partying a bit vague besides one episode where he downs two bottles of whiskeys. The parties are rather obscurely referred to as lots of drinking, singing, and merriment without much detail. In line with his amazing luck, he also gets to sleep around quite a bit.

However, this wouldn’t be a classic Irish tale if everything was fantastical and rosy. You’ll discover halfway through (so I’m not giving away the ending) that you can take the Irish out of Ireland, but you can’t take the Ireland out of the Irish. Perhaps the point of ascending so quickly to the top of the pile was the ability to freefall so much, and that is the Irish way. Life is a roller coaster ride. If you start out at the bottom, the tale is about ascending to the top but also falling down too. If you start out at the top, the tale is about falling but then ascending again. When you come from a culture that has experienced more sustained wealth, the tale is starting at the bottom and just climbing steadily or perhaps not at all, starting off at the top and staying there and nobody cares about going up or down. I think Japanese literature is like that. Life is not about ascending or descending anymore. Modern Japanese writers now have long enjoyed relative security, comfort, and wealth, so their stories are more about wandering around and meeting fantastical, disturbing, yet relatively harmless things to escape from the dreariness of comfort and security.

Malachy is an inveterate drinker, partier, and womanizer so naturally the family life is not for him. He is also an inveterate risk-taker and the luck runs out as well as his fame and glory. He is left scrounging around for odds and ends, but at the same time, in an adventurously, worldly way. His travels to India are poignant with the mass of suffering he is familiar with from Ireland. It reminded me of my first trip and experience with the Third World inside the “townships” of South Africa, what Americans would call shanty towns or ghettos. Fact is, the vast majority of humans live in poverty, poverty that would make the lower class Americans feel like the middle class of the world. Fact is, Americans have had it great between the end of the second world war and 2008. What we fail to realize is that our wealth was a direct result of Europe’s global rule ending and the transfer of much of their wealth to America to supply both their idiotic wars. Americans, overnight, became the aristocracy of the world. We lived in the biggest houses, drove the most and biggest cars, had the most luxury household amenities like laundry machines and televisions, and had the best pay for working class jobs. We have taken all that for granted. Because of a labor shortage, companies both increased wages and offered benefits that we now take for granted. They also had to loosen their immigration laws in the 60’s resulting in an immigrant explosion. As a result, wages went down along with the globalized economy especially with trade doors opening with China. Fact is, much of our wealth was being spread more evenly around the globe as countless Chinese peasants entered the working class in China and countless working class turned entrepreneurs entered the middle and upper classes. Americans are bitter that our wages have been lowered and benefits cut, but we ignore that all that was the result of Europe giving us all their wealth not American ingenuity and hard work which were contributing factors.

I have always visited First World countries until South Africa, an odd First World-Third World hybrid country. I had never seen poverty like I saw in those townships that have changed my life since then gradually. It takes time to sink in and overtake existing beliefs. When you realize that most of the world lives in poverty unimaginable to the average American, you realize that we are entitled and guilty, because we use our dollar and oversized military to ensure that our wealthy Americans stay wealthy. Meanwhile, the lower and middle classes are all angry at our own wealthy for exploiting us and sending our jobs overseas, but what they do to people in other countries is even worse. They perpetuate the suffering of poverty as well as engage in conflicts either indirectly by funding them or directly for profit or simply to destroy things so our corporations can come in and rebuild everything. We are all guilty as Americans. Our lower income is in sufficient penance for our complicity through voting either Republican or Democrat candidates who continue to perpetuate the dollar hegemony and military interventionism and foreign and military aid to autocrats along with countless clandestine operations as well as drone attacks that kill innocent civilians or political protestors. Fact is, if we opened all our borders, the world would enter and lower wages and quality of life for us. But why not? America took Europe’s wealth which was stolen from the world, and the world wants to work in America and Europe and experience some of their wealth. Why not? Sure it would lower our wages and quality of life, but if you’re a free market advocate, doesn’t that mean a borderless global economy where someone from any place on this planet can compete with you for your job at a lower wage? Isn’t this equal and fair and would alleviate a lot of the poverty in the world? But of course, you would never in your wildest dreams allow for this because you have a job and you’re comfortable and secure, and you have debts to pay off, and losing your job to an Indian person who can do it for half the wage is unacceptable. But why? Because you’re just lucky enough to be born an American? Isn’t that exactly the same argument the rich make? They were lucky enough to be born rich so why should they stop lobbying Congress for special laws and loopholes to ensure they stay rich? Why should they support a free market that endangers their wealth just like it would endanger your job? Why should they support a system that distributes wealth more evenly because just like you, you’re afraid it would mean that you would be poorer. As an American you fight against the rich Americans to be more fair and distribute their wealth more evenly, but what about the Indian or Chinese or Nigerian who would argue with you that by not allowing them to compete freely for your job, you are just as corrupt and unfair as the rich Americans we fight against?

Monk swimming refers to the words of a prayer he mistook as a kid, “Blessed art thou amongst women…” as “…Blessed art thou, a monk swimming – Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Malachy descends into drunken poverty. He meets up again with his father who is a boozing idiot, like father like son. There is a very touching, powerful passage at the end about his father taking his son on a trip and then leaving him. As a son whose father left when I was seven, I often wonder what impact that had on my life, and I can’t fail to wonder if all my crazy, angry, drunken bouts are rooted in a missing father. But then again, I can also trace a lot of it to a crazy mother and an abusive sister. The unfortunate thing about a messed up family is how long the after effects linger, but key to rectifying it to some degree, or mitigating it, is taking responsibility, and Malachy never takes responsibility for his failed marriage and broken family, instead blaming his wife or a God that won’t intervene on his behalf. One is never condemned to their fate by their messed up family so long as they encounter positive role-models and take responsibility for their actions. But the struggle is long and hard and the life is crazier, perhaps more adventurous and interesting and worthy of a novel. Crazy people are always saying how much they would hate a boring old life as an insurance agent with a guaranteed income and a wife and kids and all that. It’s a life that is more stable and free of drama, but I suppose when you grow up with so much drama, you are drawn to it, and you’re always afraid of the unknown, the stable caring family life which you often feel inadequate to either provide or deserve. So often times, it’s just easier to hang out with other wretches with all their drama and highs and lows and find that as a reasonable excuse of a life. That is Malachy’s tale, sometimes joyous, adventurous, wild, captivating, entertaining, and nonsensical, but all distracting from a life that is fundamentally sad and crippled. For whatever reason, perhaps the odd photo of a young guy on the back cover whom I thought was the author and could not possibly have been in his 20’s in the 50’s, I thought it was a novel. The photo is actually of Thomas Keneally author of Schindler’s List who gave the book praise. Knowing it was real is all the more impressive for the life of McCourt.

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