Frank McCourt

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frank McCourt Angela's Ashes

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Biography, National Book Critics Circle Award

Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Ireland, McCourt is an American memoirist.

McCourt's childhood, recounted in his critically acclaimed autobiography, Angela's Ashes (1996), was so bleak and impoverished that the months he spent in a hospital recovering from typhoid fever seemed like a vacation. His parents, Malachy and Angela, were Irish immigrants who met and married in the slums of New York during the Depression; after several years and the births of several children, McCourt's father chose to move the family back to Ireland. It was an ill-fated decision: The fortunes of the family did not improve, largely due to Malachy's heavy drinking and inability to hold a job, and they found themselves living in an unheated room with no running water and the neighborhood latrine right next door. Despite the desperation that marks his story, McCourt writes of positive, even humorous, events along with the horrible. Malcolm Jones Jr. observed: "The genius of the book is that the tears and laughter are rarely separated by so much as a comma." Jones further praised McCourt for enabling readers to "care not just about little Frank but about his brothers, his mother and even his good-for-nothing father." Many critics have suggested that McCourt's storytelling ability is a legacy from his father, who often burst into the house in the middle of the night, having drunk his last penny at a local pub, and woke his sons to regale them with stories of Irish folk heroes and patriotic songs. Michiko Kakutani remarked: "With Angela's Ashes, [McCourt] has used the storytelling gifts he inherited from his father to write a book that redeems the pain of his early years with wit and compassion and grace." Kakutani noted that McCourt's affinity for descriptive prose "does for the town of Limerick what the young [James] Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we've walked its streets and crawled its pubs." Although Angela's Ashes is filled with examples of typical Irish stereotypes—the drunken father, the mother burdened with too many children—critics felt McCourt successfully avoided reinforcing them. Nina King commented: "Angela's Ashes … confirms the stereotypes at the same time that it transcends them through the sharpness and precision of McCourt's observation and the wit and beauty of his prose."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Angela's Ashes (memoir) 1996

Malcolm Jones Jr. (review date 2 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hard Luck, Good Tales," in Newsweek, September 2, 1996, pp. 68-9.

[In the review below, Jones praises McCourt's memoir but notes that the author's fast-paced narrative belies a desire to rid himself of his memories.]

In its barest outline, Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, looks like an encyclopedia of Irish cliché. His account of an impoverished Irish Catholic childhood gives us the drunken father bawling patriotic songs at all hours of the night, the poor sainted mother weeping by the fire and the wee lads without a crust between 'em. The odd thing is, while you're reading you hardly notice that some of this material has come your way before. Taking up the staples of Irish family sagas, McCourt uses virtuosic black humor and a natural-born storyteller's instincts to induce in his readers a blissful literary amnesia. By the time you're done, you've come to wonder if he didn't invent Ireland all by himself.

From the first page, it's easy to see why literary insiders have been buzzing about McCourt since early summer, after advance copies of his book started circulating and The New Yorker ran a long excerpt. Musical, intelligent, confiding, his confident voice belies the fact that this is the first book from a former New York City schoolteacher. "When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all," he writes. "It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish...

(The entire section is 7,440 words.)