‘Tis by Frank McCourt

     After Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read, I wasn’t sure what to expect from ’Tis. Frank McCourt was born in New York City, but moved back to Ireland with histis family as a small child. The fact that young Frank, at the age of 19, was able to escape extreme poverty in Ireland and move back to New York City is an accomplishment by itself. Within several days of arriving, he receives the first of many warnings about the evils of drink and is urged to become acquainted with the New York Public Library – by a bartender. After a period of time working as a janitor at the Biltmore Hotel, the Korean War begins, and within weeks McCourt receives his Army draft notice. After basic training in New Jersey, McCourt is sent to a dog training unit in Germany and avoids combat. Within several weeks, he is selected for Company Clerk training. After his military obligation ends, McCourt returns to New York City and labor in the warehouses on the New York City waterfront.

     McCourt’s descriptions of Army life are hilarious, but throughout the first half of the book there are several somber themes that surface again and again. McCourt is extremely naïve about women, wants to break free of the stifling variety of Catholicism that he grew up with in Ireland, and early on after arriving in New York realizes that education is his only way out of a life of manual labor. McCourt also learns very quickly that in the United States, extreme racial divisions have replaced the class divisions of Ireland.

     This reviewer thought it remarkable that from the time of his arrival in New York City onward, McCourt repeatedly encounters individuals (sometimes rank strangers) who recommend works of literature and encourage his initial ambivalence about pursuing education. I guess you could call them literary angels.

     McCourt eventually overcomes his ambivalence about education and starts a college degree at New York University – without a high school diploma. After graduation, McCourt lands his first teaching position at a Vocational High School on Staten Island. Over the next decade or so there’s an interesting contrast in the book between Frank, pursuing a career in education, and younger brother Malachy McCourt, who has purchased a bar, is still deeply immersed in Irish culture, and has a drinking problem. McCourt earns a Masters degree from Brooklyn College and better jobs follow, but throughout the book he effectively describes the pull of Irish immigrant culture – where he doesn’t really fit anymore – versus his ambition to live a “normal” middle-class American life.

    McCourt has a great eye for detail, society, and the randomness of life, and describes a journey out of poverty that is hard for most readers to imagine.

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Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock

Quacks have always been around, but Charlatan proves they have been especially prolific in the United States. Pride, vanity, and the endless pursuit of youth are human qualities that have helped quackery flourish. Charlatan is the story of the greatest con man of early twentieth-century America, John R. Brinkley, who exploited male vanity to build a multi-million dollar business empire. Pope Brock is the author of Indiana Gothic; he has also written a variety of articles for Esquire and other periodicals in the United States and Great Britain.

Charlatan is about a doctor, but it is also the story of an unregulated era in America—an environment that allowed John R. Brinkley to build his empire on the implantation of goat testicles to “restore” male virility. Brinkley started his life on a farm in the Jackson County, North Carolina community of Beta. After an early career selling patent medicines and other medical scams, he purchased a medical license in Kansas that allowed him to practice in eight states. In the fall of 1917, Brinkley performed his famous operation for the first time. Demand for the operation and financial success allowed him to open a clinic in Milford, Kansas. Radio Station KFKB began marketing Brinkley’s operation and patent medicines to the nation in 1924. Preferring an unregulated broadcasting environment, Brinkley moved his radio station to Mexico in 1931, where it was renamed XER. By 1932 it boasted a million-watt signal and was the most powerful radio station in the world. During the mid-1930s, Brinkley’s annual income was twelve million dollars.

Every force has an opposing force: for Brinkley it was Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Fishbein and Brinkley shared many qualities: sharp intelligence, a flair for self-promotion, and relentless energy. In 1930, Fishbein’s influence led Kansas medical authorities to revoke Brinkley’s medical license. Brinkley’s response was to run for Governor of Kansas, nearly winning the race. Throughout the 1930s, Fishbein used his position to pursue Brinkley and to expose other quacks. In 1939, Fishbein and the American Medical Association were able to win a medical malpractice suit against Brinkley in Texas. Former patients started lining up to sue Brinkley, and in 1941 he was charged with federal mail fraud and forced to declare bankruptcy. Brinkley’s health declined and he died on May 26, 1942 in San Antonio, Texas.

Charlatan is a fascinating read, and this reviewer is surprised no one has made a movie of Brinkley’s life. John R. Brinkley was the ultimate quack, and his is a unique American story. Charlatan includes an excellent index and comprehensive footnotes. The bibliography includes two doctoral dissertations on Brinkley.Highly recommended (This review was previously published in North Carolina Libraries).

My Rating: