We were always a confessional people, we Irish, but only as long as the listener was a priest in the box or a pal nodding after a night of knocking back pints. We didn't tell every Tom, Dick or Mick our troubles. It wasn't done.Historians and scholars may pull me up short on this, but it seems to me that until recently, perhaps the last 30 years or so, there was a great paucity of memoir in the Irish and Irish-American world. Keep your troubles behind the lace curtain, darling, or the neighbors will be talking. There was Eugene O'Neill, of course, but he was an aberration.It's changing. The Irish-Americans are looking back and getting it down on paper. They're a different breed, the Irish-Americans, not to be confused with the Irish Back Home.You'll discover those differences in Thomas Fleming's majestic new book, Mysteries of My Father
, a book in which there are enough plots and themes for a dozen novels. There is the marriage of Fleming's father, Teddy, to his mother, Kitty. They are a classic, almost stereotypical, pair: he the ill-educated tough ward politician aware of his shortcomings, she the gentle, well-educated beauty with social aspirations. You may not have much patience with Kitty. She despises Teddy's political world, especially the man at the top in Jersey City, Frank Hague. She simply doesn't understand that, for many Irish in those days, that was the way you had to go. You helped your own, you found them jobs, you made sure they voted and you rewarded them. You made your way with your fists.No, Kitty didn't understand. She looked along other avenues and saw "the quality" secure in their snobbery. That was the family tragedy, though the tragedy was mostly Teddy's.What an extraordinary man—tough enough, brave enough, smart enough to earn a battlefield commission. Personable enough to make an impression on Frank Hague.The ingredients of this memoir are particularly Irish-American. The setting is Jersey City, then an Irish (American) political powerhouse ruled by Hague. You may think "Ah, yes, the usual Irish political machine," but Fleming dismisses the notion of something well-oiled and running smoothly. What he saw around Frank Hague was essentially a ragtag army of hangers-on and opportunists.Teddy gives lip service to the church, but his faith goes fist deep. He will bow to monsignors and bishops but it's all political. In families like the Flemings, as in most Irish-American families, it is the women who keep the faith alive.Irishness is an ingredient of the book, but not as the Irish Back Home would understand it. There is a reference to the Dolan family (Kitty was a Dolan) and their relationship with the Old Country. "Seldom if ever was Ireland mentioned in the Dolan household as a source of anger and sorrow. To Tom Dolan, the mother country was not even a memory.... Instead, the Dolans felt a subtle discomfort about their Irish Catholic name in mostly Protestant uptown Jersey City."This book is mainly a chronicle of love—repressed, frustrated, lost, finally exploding, as Thomas Fleming leads us skillfully from the first breathless moments between Teddy and Kitty through the deterioration of their marriage to a later time when the son begins to understand his father's volcanic love.Andrew Greeley once wrote of a scholar going to Washington looking for funds to introduce courses on the Irish-American experience. The Washington official said, "No. The Irish don't count anymore."Not on the political scene, perhaps, but watch out for an Irish-American literature that digs deep, a literature with Thomas Fleming as standard bearer. This, for the historian, novelist and playwright, is still, I think, virgin territory. There's gold here. McCourt's
Teacher Man, a memoir of this 30 years of teaching in New York City schools, will be published by Scriber in the fall.
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* ""Mysteries of My Father
is a rich book. Rich in Fleming’s textured description of Jersey City politics. Rich in wonderful personal anecdotes (Frank Hague’s last hurrah on a platform amid the surging, rebellious voters of the Second Ward is the stuff of epic poetry). Rich in sympathetic understanding of Teddy and Kitty and of their tempestuous marriage. Rich in honest evocation of ‘the morally grey world of Hudson County politics.’ And rich in its power to bring alive the once vital, now vanished world of the big-city Irish-American political machine… A moving, masterly, forgiving remembrance."" (Commonwealth Magazine
Although a paternal portrait may be his primary aim, Thomas Fleming's subtitle promises, more broadly, ""an Irish-American memoir."" For some of us, that's a worrisome vow, portending crapulous fathers who imbibe paychecks, pious wives who berate husbands for same and hordes of children wailing in squalor. True to form, the late-19th-century Jersey City to which Mr. Fleming's grandparents migrated was home to these auld Gaelic clichés. What adds the American to the Irish in this story, though, is its celebration not merely of stumbling and wallowing but of rebelling and ruling.
Following an eminent career as a writer of both history and fiction, Mr. Fleming has gone rummaging in his own family archives to produce Mysteries of My Father, a memoir of his father's fight to emerge from corrupting poverty with some part of his soul unbruised. And quite a scrap it was.
From his earliest (if never exactly tender) years, Teddy Fleming slugged his way out of obligations and into opportunities. One of his earliest bouts involved menacing a schoolmate into serving as his proxy for mandatory weekday Mass so that Teddy could earn money for his family as a newsie in Manhattan, a situation he had to secure and maintain with yet more hand-to-hand persuasion. As he matured, Fleming the elder punched, shoved and occasionally even boxed his way through the ranks of the 312th Regiment in World War I and the Jersey City Democratic organization during the Depression.
The civilizing influence of the author's mother, Kitty Dolan, went a long way toward keeping the Fleming household free from alcohol, domestic violence and lawless grammar. Eventually, though, her Catholic aspirations to Protestant gentility and heavy-handed elocution lessons failed to soothe her brute of a husband. In fact, the rigorous application of her snobbery to his rough patches wore away only the affection from their marriage, leaving bare an estrangement that was -- and continues to be -- a source of anguish for the author.
Teddy Fleming enjoyed many decades as the muscle in Mayor Frank Hague's Jersey City machine but, at the end, his triumphs withered. Following Kitty's ""unconscious suicide,"" in which she ignored obvious warnings of breast cancer until she succumbed to it, Teddy Fleming lost his political puissance and, ultimately, all the strength he once possessed to continue his contest with life.
Teddy's son eventually left Jersey City to traverse the broad atlas of American history in more than a dozen books (e.g., ""Liberty! The American Revolution,"" ""Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America"" and ""The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I""). His talent for capturing the details of social and political history shines through in this memoir, particularly in the passages that give context to Teddy Fleming's rise to leader of the Sixth Ward, chairman of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, judge of the Second Criminal Court and sheriff of Hudson County. On these pages, Mr. Fleming evokes Edmund Morris's portrait of Teddy Roosevelt's political apprenticeship in ""Theodore Rex.""
Occasionally, though, when the focus constricts to the personal, one wonders whether Mr. Fleming labors under an excess of intimacy with his subject. For while the vigor of his father