Excerpt from Tis by Frank McCourt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Memoir

by Frank McCourt

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  • First Published:
    Sep 1999, 368 pages
    Aug 2000, 368 pages

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That is what I wanted to tell the priest but I didn't know how to talk to him either. All I knew about priests was that they said Mass and everything else in Latin, that they heard my sins in English and forgave me in Latin on behalf of Our Lord Himself who is God anyway. It must be a strange thing to be a priest and wake up in the morning lying there in the bed knowing you have the power to forgive people or not forgive them depending on your mood. When you know Latin and forgive sins it makes you powerful and hard to talk to because you know the dark secrets of the world. Talking to a priest is like talking to God Himself and if you say the wrong thing you're doomed.

There wasn't a soul on that ship who could tell me how to talk to rich Protestants and demanding priests. My uncle by marriage, Pa Keating, could have told me but he was back in Limerick where he didn't give a fiddler's fart about anything. I knew if he were here he'd refuse to talk to the rich people entirely and then he'd tell the priest to kiss his royal Irish arse. That's how I'd like to be myself but when your teeth and eyes are destroyed you never know what to say or what to do with yourself.

There was a book in the ship's library, Crime and Punishment, and I thought it might be a good murder mystery even if it was filled with confusing Russian names. I tried to read it in a deck chair but the story made me feel strange, a story about a Russian student, Raskolnikov, who kills an old woman, a moneylender, and then tries to convince himself he's entitled to the money because she's useless to the world and her money would pay for his university expenses so that he could become a lawyer and go round defending people like himself who kill old women for their money. It made me feel strange because of the time in Limerick when I had a job writing threatening letters for an old woman moneylender, Mrs. Finucane, and when she died in a chair I took some of her money to help me pay my fare to America. I knew I didn't kill Mrs. Finucane but I took her money and that made me almost as bad as Raskolnikov and if I died this minute he'd be the first one I'd run into in hell. I could save my soul by confessing to the priest and even though he's supposed to forget your sins the minute he gives you absolution he'd have power over me and he'd give me strange looks and tell me go charm the rich Protestants from Kentucky.

I fell asleep reading the book and a sailor, a deckhand, woke me to tell me, Your book is getting wet in the rain, sir.

Sir. Here I was from a lane in Limerick and there's a man with gray hair calling me sir even though he's not supposed to say a word to me in the first place because of the rules. The first officer told me an ordinary sailor was never allowed to speak to passengers except for a Good Day or Good Night. He told me this particular sailor with the gray hair was once an officer on the Queen Elizabeth but he was fired because he was caught with a first-class passenger in her cabin and what they were doing was a cause of confession. This man's name was Owen and he was peculiar the way he spent all his time reading below and when the ship docked he'd go ashore with a book and read in a café while the rest of the crew got roaring drunk and had to be hauled back to the ship in taxis. Our own captain had such respect for him he'd have him up to his cabin and they'd have tea and talk of the days they served together on an English destroyer that was torpedoed, the two of them hanging on to a raft in the Atlantic drifting and freezing and chatting about the time they'd get back to Ireland and have a nice pint and a mountain of bacon and cabbage.

Owen spoke to me next day. He said he knew he was breaking the rules but he couldn't help talking to anyone on this ship who was reading Crime and Punishment. There were great readers in the crew right enough but they wouldn't move beyond Edgar Wallace or Zane Grey and he'd give anything to be able to chat about Dostoyevsky. He wanted to know if I'd read The Possessed or The Brothers Karamazov and he looked sad when I said I'd never heard of them. He told me the minute I got to New York I should rush to a bookshop and get Dostoyevsky books and I'd never be lonely again. He said no matter what Dostoyevsky book you read he always gave you something to chew on and you can't beat that for a bargain. That's what Owen said though I had no notion of what he was talking about.

Copyright © 1999 by Frank McCourt

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