Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt

The best memoirs detail an extraordinary life (either good or bad) or use humor, or both. Frank McCourt's does both, though perhaps the humor is more prevalent than anything extraordinary. In fact, what McCourt writes in his memoir, Angela's Ashes, was probably typical for a poor Irish family during the Great Depression/World War II era. Perhaps, in some ways, it's typical of a poor family today, though I suppose a moment in time will never be typical in comparison to another. McCourt never had an iPhone, anyway. What makes Angela's Ashes so extraordinary is that McCourt is able to make the day-to-day life of his childhood so fascinating, and his ability to write about some terrible life experiences with humor instead of self-pity.

At the age of four, Frank McCourt, whose parents met and married in New York, moved to his ancestral homeland of Ireland. Had they remained in New York, this would have been a different story. Christened Francis, Frank never had an easy time at life. His father was an alcoholic who couldn't hold onto a job because he'd blow his wages at a pub and forget to go in to work the next day. To make things worse, his father was from the north, and Frank apparently had his father's odd manner. His family had to live on the dole, Ireland's welfare system, because work was hard to find. Frank's father, Malachy, was a proud man who never collected the dole himself. This was a task for his wife. Malachy found more pride sitting on his arse at home or the pub. Though men are usually thought of as the stronger of the two sexes, history shows often it's the women who step forward during times of struggle. Men take it as a psychological blow when they lose their ability to support their family.

Frank had a large family. His parents wed when his mother, Angela, was discovered pregnant, and so Frank was born shortly afterwards. I lost count of the number of children they had - they just kept popping them out. But about as many died as survived. Living in poor households with poor medical aid, illness was very nearly a death sentence for the young. It seems a miracle that Frank and three of his brothers survived into adulthood when death was ubiquitous. Not only did he lose siblings, but friends his age as well. And adults who had come down with tuberculosis were either dead or coughing up their lungs. Not surprisingly, those dying off in droves were the poor, either because they couldn't work or because they didn't have enough money for anything but food and shelter, if that.

Reading Angela's Ashes, you never get a sense of dreary gloom. Sure, things were bad, but McCourt nonetheless writes about his difficult childhood with a sense of nostalgia. And humor. Lots of humor. You never get the sense of a man who feels sorry for himself, who is trying to make excuses for a possibly later difficult adult life. He describes moments that would drive many people to tears in a way that instead drives them to laughter. The memoir also never aims to preach. Frank is a boy who loves to read, but McCourt never aims to proselytize his own strength of character due to this attribute. It seems to be a way to escape the difficulties of life and see other worlds. In fact, the memoir never really feels like a memoir, as McCourt never makes self-referential comments nor does he point to his future.

One area that would be ripe for self-pity in other memoirs is the topic of McCourt's failure of a father. In other stories, this father would not only be incompetent, but a rotten person. Malachy may not have been able to overcome his alcohol addiction to take better care of his family, but he was not a bad father in all regards. Frank loved his father in the tender way his father regarded the children and his wife and through the stories of Cuchulain his father shared. Frank couldn't help but hate the man who returned home late from the pub, singing songs of Irish nationalism, but still love the tender, loving man beneath the drunkenness.

This is the second memoir by McCourt that I have read. The first was Teacher Man, his last, so I always knew what sort of life he would lead later. Knowing that made this an even more extraordinary read, as it turns out Angela's Ashes is the beginnings of a rags to riches story. That a young boy in some of the worst conditions of poverty could later become a successful teacher and then become rich writing a novel is an amazing feat. Also having read Teacher Man first, I saw a glimpse of a different sort of Frank McCourt, a McCourt who did not view the rest of his adult life with the same kind of nostalgia he gives his childhood here. It's amazing the difference in tone between the two books. In Teacher Man there's a sort of smugness, a narcissism, and poor attempts at humor that made it difficult for me to enjoy. Angela's Ashes seems, then, a surprise success from somebody not quite so full of himself as he would become later. Rather than nostalgia, he viewed his teaching career almost as a wasted life, one made complete only by the success of his memoir. That said, Angela's Ashes is an enjoyable, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking story about a normal, yet extraordinary life.