Why is this dark memoir, from a previously unpublished 66-year-old retired high-school teacher, generating so much buzz in publishing circles? It probably helps that Frank McCourt, a committed New York pub-crawler, has made a lot of influential lit-world friends while nursing pints of beer over the decades. But here's a less cynical answer: It's largely because Angela's Ashes relates McCourt's miserable, bruising Irish Catholic childhood in language that is as flinty and compelling as the story itself. He's soaked up some real literary ability along with the suds.
Born in the U.S. at the start of the Depression to Irish immigrant parents, McCourt suffered early and often at the hands of his fathera man who rarely got work and when he did, drank his meager wages away. When the family decided to move back to Ireland, things went from very bad to much worse. They settled in a Limerick slum and went on the dole, which was "just enough for all of us to starve on." (Indeed, neither of McCourt's two young twin brothers lived much beyond their second birthdays.) Barely old enough himself to go to school, McCourt helped his mother Angela scrounge for "bits of coal that drop from lorries" so they could at least have a fire for tea. He gathered "everything that burns, coal, wood, cardboard, paper."
It was a life so brimming with hardship and grinding poverty that when McCourt returned home from months in the typhoid ward, he longed for "the hospital where the white sheets were changed everyday and where there wasn't a sign of a flea." Hope kindled when World War II created jobs in England and McCourt's father went off with the promise of sending money back to his family. They rarely heard from him again.
Throughout this tale, McCourt displays a wry sense of humor. "When you look at pictures of Jesus," he notes at one point, "He's always wandering around ancient Israel in a sheet. It never rains there and you never hear of anyone coughing or getting consumption or anything like that and no one has a job there because all they do is stand around and eat manna and shake their fists and go to crucifixions."
It's no surprise when, with his first real job as a telegram delivery boy, McCourt begins to plan his escape from this hell. The book's most triumphant moment occurs when he manages to make the return passage to America at age 19. With Angela's Ashes, McCourt has succeeded in turning bleak reality into literature that sings.
New York Times
A classic modern memoir...stunning.
A monument to the self-perpetuating power of the human spirit...an accomplished, authoritative, and shimmering example of the memoirist's art.
A spellbinding memoir of childhood that swerves flawlessly between aching sadness and desperate humor...a work of lasting beauty.
Stunning....Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin.
The New York Times
A splendid memoir, both funny and forgiving.
Detroit Free Press
Every once in a while, a lucky reader comes across a book that makes an indelible impression, a book you immediately want to share with everyone around you....Frank McCourt's life, and his searing telling of it, reveal all we need to know about being human.
McCourt is the eldest of eight children born to Angela Sheehan and Malachy McCourt in the 1930s. The McCourts began their family in poverty in Brooklyn, yet when Angela slipped into depression after the death of her only daughter (four of eight children survived), the family reversed the tide of emigration and returned to Ireland, living on public assistance in Limerick. McCourt's story is laced with the pain of extreme poverty, aggravated by an alcoholic father who abandoned the family during World War II. Given the burdens of grief and starvation, it's a tribute to his skill that he can serve the reader a tale of love, some sadness, but at least as much laughter as the McCourts' "Yankee" children knew growing up in the streets of Limerick. His story, almost impossible to put down, may well become a classic.
Robert Moore, DuPont Merck Pharmaceuticals, Framingham, Massachusetts
It is a wonder that McCourt survived his childhood in the slums of Depression-era Limerick, Ireland: three of his siblings did not, dying of minor illnesses complicated by near starvation. Even more astonishing is how generous of spirit he became and remains. His family livedbarelyin a flat so miserable that every year they had to cram themselves into an upstairs room when winter floods made the place only half-habitable. That upstairs room was "Italy"warm and dry. Downstairs was Irelandwet and cold. Father sat up there drinking tea, while mother Angela often could not rise from bed, so depressed was she. Or mother sat by the fire, waiting for father to return; when he did, frequently drunk on their little money, he would line up the boys and extract promises that they would die for Ireland.
Dying was what everyone seemed to do best: the little sister, the twins, the girl with whom Frank first had sex, the old man Frank read to, too many boys from school, too many neighbors, too many relatives. McCourt spares us no details: the stench of the one toilet shared by an entire street, the insults of the charity officers, the maurauding rats, the street fights, the infected eyes, the fleas in the mattress...Yet he found a way to love in that miserable Limerick, and it is love one remembers as the dominant flavor in this Irish stew.
A beautifully written memoir full of Irish wit and pathos, making it stand out among the garden variety of youthful reminisces. Let's face it, a bad childhood is more interesting and McCourt had it in spades. He was born in Brooklyn, but his family went back to Ireland where he grew up on the dole exacerbated by alcoholism (his father's), near starvation, beatings by the schoolmasters, and a brief respite in clinic where he discovered Shakespeare. All of this would be merely stereotype in less capable hands, but McCourt's mastery of language manages to make us understand the gentleness, forgiveness, and humor that accompanies misery and enables its protagonists to survive with dignity. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Astonishingly vivid...Frank McCourt's life, and his searing telling of it, reveals all we need to know about being human.
The Detroit Free Press
Vanessa V. Friedman
The power of this memoir is that it makes you believe the claim: that despite the rags, and hunger and pain, love and strength do come out of misery - as well as a page turner of a book. And though the experience it tells of was individual, the point - and the story - is universal.
Vanessa V. Friedman, Entertainment Weekly
A powerful, exquisitely written debut, a recollection of the author's miserable childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, during the Depression and WW II. McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930 but returned to Ireland with his family at the age of four. He describes, not without humor, scenes of hunger, illness, filth, and deprivation that would have given Dickens pause. His shiftless loquacious alcoholic father, Malachy, rarely worked; when he did he usually drank his wages, leaving his wife, Angela, to beg from local churches and charity organizations. McCourt remembers his little sister dying in his mother's arms. Then Oliver, one of the twins, got sick and died. McCourt himself nearly died of typhoid fever when he was 10. As awful and neglectful as his father could be, there were also heart-rendingly tender moments: Unable to pay for a doctor and fearful of losing yet another child when the youngest is almost suffocating from a cold, his father places his "mouth on the little nose...sucking the bad stuff out of Michael's head." Malachy fled to do war work in England but failed to send any money home, leaving his wife and children, already living in squalor, to further fend for themselves. They stole and begged and tore wood from the walls to burn in the stove. Forced to move in with an abusive cousin, McCourt became aware that the man and his mother were having "the excitement" up there in their grubby loft. After taking a beating from the man, McCourt ran away to stay with an uncle and spent his teens alternating between petty crime and odd jobs. Eventually he made his way, once again, to America. An extraordinary work in every way. McCourt magically retrieves love, dignity,and humor from a childhood of hunger, loss, and pain.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter IV
First Communion day is the happiest day of your life because of The Collection
and James Cagney at the Lyric Cinema. The night before I was so excited I
couldn't sleep till dawn. I'd still be sleeping if my grandmother hadn't come banging at the door.
Get up! Get up! Get that child outa the bed. Happiest day of his life an' him snorin' above in the bed.
I ran to the kitchen. Take off that shirt, she said. I took off the shirt and she pushed me into a tin tub of icy cold water. My mother scrubbed me, my grandmother scrubbed me. I was raw, I was red.
They dried me. They dressed me in my black velvet First Communion suit with the white frilly shirt, the short pants, the white stockings, the black patent leather shoes. Around my arm they tied a white satin bow and on my lapel they
pinned the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a picture with blood dripping from it, flames erupting all around it and on top a nasty-looking crown of thorns.
Come here till I comb your hair, said Grandma. Look at that mop, it won't lie down. You didn't get that hair from my side of the family. That's that North of Ireland hair you got from your father. That's the kind of hair you see on Presbyterians. If your mother had married a proper decent Limerickman you wouldn't have this standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair.
She spat twice on my head.
Grandma, will you please stop spitting on my head.
If you have anything to say, shut up. A little spit won't kill you. Come on, we'll be late for the Mass.
We ran to the church. My mother panted along behind with Michael in her arms. We arrived at the church just in time to see the last of the boys leaving the altar rail where the priest stood with the chalice and the host, glaring at me. Then he placed on my tongue the wafer, the body and blood of Jesus. At last, at last.
It's on my tongue. I draw it back.
I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master's voice, Don't let that host touch your teeth for if you bite God in two you'll roast in hell for eternity. I tried to get God down with my tongue but the priest hissed at me, Stop that clucking and get back to your seat. God was good. He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner.
When the Mass ended there they were at the door of the church, my mother with Michael in her arms, my grandmother. They each hugged me to their bosoms. They each told me it was the happiest day of my life. They each cried all over my head and after my grandmother's contribution that morning my head was a swamp.
Mam, can I go now and make The Collection?
She said, After you have a little breakfast.
No, said Grandma.You're not making no collection till you have a proper First
Communion breakfast at my house. Come on.
We followed her. She banged pots and rattled pans and complained that the whole world expected her to be at their beck and call. I ate the egg, I ate the sausage, and when I reached for more sugar for my tea she slapped my hand away.
Go aisy with that sugar. Is it a millionaire you think I am? An American? Is it bedecked in glitterin' jewelry you think I am? Smothered in fancy
The food churned in my stomach. I gagged. I ran to her backyard and threw it all up. Out she came.
Look at what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body
and blood of Jesus. I have God in me backyard. What am I goin' to do? I'll take
him to the Jesuits for they know the sins of the Pope himself.
She dragged me through the streets of Limerick. She told the neighbors and
passing strangers about God in her backyard. She pushed me into the confession
In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's a day since my last confession.
A day? And what sins have you committed in a day, my child?
I overslept. I nearly missed my First Communion. My grandmother said I have standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair. I threw up my First Communion breakfast. Now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.
The priest is like the First Confession priest. He has the heavy breathing and
the choking sounds.
Ah...ah...tell your grandmother to wash God away with a little water and for your penance say one Hail Mary and one Our Father. Say a prayer for me and God bless you, my child.
Grandma and Mam were waiting close to the confession box. Grandma said, Were you telling jokes to that priest in the confession box? If 'tis a thing I ever
find out you were telling jokes to Jesuits I'll tear the bloody kidneys outa
you. Now what did he say about God in my backyard?
He said wash Him away with a little water, Grandma.
Holy water or ordinary water?
He didn't say, Grandma.
Well, go back and ask him.
She pushed me back into the confessional.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it's a minute since my last confession.
A minute! Are you the boy that was just here?
I am, Father.
What is it now?
My grandma says, Holy water or ordinary water?
Ordinary water, and tell your grandmother not to be bothering me again.
I told her, Ordinary water, Grandma, and he said don't be bothering him again.
Don't be bothering him again. That bloody ignorant bogtrotter.
I asked Mam, Can I go now and make The Collection? I want to see James Cagney.
Grandma said, You can forget about The Collection and James Cagney because
you're not a proper Catholic the way you left God on the ground. Come on, go home.
Mam said, wait a minute. That's my son. That's my son on his First Communion day. He's going to see James Cagney.
No he's not.
Yes he is.
Grandma said, Take him then to James Cagney and see if that will save his
Presbyterian North of Ireland American soul. Go ahead.
She pulled her shawl around her and walked away.
Mam said, God, it's getting very late for The Collection and you'll never
see James Cagney. We'll go to the Lyric Cinema and see if they'll let you in anyway in your First Communion suit. We met Mikey Molloy on Barrington Street. He asked if I was going to the Lyric and I said I was trying. Trying? he said. You don't have money? I was ashamed to say no but I had to and he said, That's all right. I'll get you in. I'll create a diversion.
What's a diversion?
I have the money to go and when I get in I'll pretend to have the fit and
the ticket man will be out of his mind and you can slip in when I let out the big scream. I'll be watching the door and when I see you in I'll have a miraculous recovery. That's a diversion. That's what I do to get my brothers in all the time.
Mam said, Oh, I don't know about that, Mikey. Wouldn't that be a sin and surely
you wouldn't want Frank to commit a sin on his Communion day.
Mikey said if there was a sin it would be on his soul and he wasn't a proper Catholic anyway so it didn't matter. He let out his scream and I slipped in and sat next to Question Quigley and the ticket man, Frank Goggin, was so worried over Mikey he never noticed. It was a thrilling film but sad in the end because James Cagney was a public enemy and when they shot him they wrapped him in bandages and threw him in the door, shocking his poor old Irish mother, and that was the end of my First Communion day.
Copyright © 1996 by Frank McCourt