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 childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."
Born in Brooklyn to Irish immigrants who soon returned to Ireland, McCourt grew up in Limerick, a soggy city where the pervasive wet "created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks." His baby sister had died in America; his little twin brothers died soon after the family arrived in Ireland. His mother suffered through pneumonia, and McCourt survived typhoid. When the dad did find the infrequent job, he drank his paycheck on the way home, leaving the family to depend on charity and the grudging help of relatives. The McCourts' rented house sat beside the only outhouse for a whole lane of houses. When it rained, their downstairs, dubbed "Ireland," flooded. Upstairs, marginally warmer, they called "Italy."
With a keen memory for character and the music of Irish speech, McCourt can climb inside a boy's head and piece the world together with a child's illogic. He writes about his bout with typhoid: "It's dark and Dr. Campbell is sitting by my bed. He's holding my wrist and looking at his watch…. He sits now and hums and looks out the window. His eyes close and he snores a little. He tilts over on the chair and farts and smiles to himself and I know now I'm going to get better because a doctor would never fart in the presence of a dying boy."
Conversation in Angela's Ashes is rendered without quotation marks, and McCourt is almost as sparing with commas, as though he were anxious that nothing, not even punctuation, should slow the telling of these tales. Given the oceans of suffering he unleashes, that speed is a blessing. But it leaves no room for reflection, and in the end McCourt's haste—to escape childhood and Limerick, to return to America—gets the best of him. He has taught us to care not just about little Frank but about his brothers, his mother and even his good-for-nothing father, but he can't take the time to tell us what happened to those...
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people. One suspects that for McCourt, memoir is not about getting the facts straight but a way of putting esthetic distance between himself and the pain of his past. The biographical note on the book's jacket tells us that the author and his brother Malachy have performed a musical review, "A Couple of Blaguards," about their childhood—another hint that McCourt is an old hand at defusing bad memories by turning them into entertainment. And given his childhood circumstances, one can hardly blame him. Indeed, the craving for more that we feel at the end of this book is less McCourt's fault than it is to his credit. It is only the best storyteller who can so beguile his readers that he leaves them wanting more when he's done. WithAngela's Ashes, McCourt proves himself one of the very best.
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."
SOURCE: "Some Day I'll Be In Out of the Rain," in The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p. 13.
[In the following review, Donoghue summarizes Angela's Ashes and reflects on the Irish childhood experiences he shares in common with McCourt.]
All happy childhoods are the same; every unhappy childhood is unhappy in its own way. In Angela's Ashes Frank McCourt maintains that "worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." My own childhood was Irish and Catholic, a combination I didn't find especially disagreeable; but then I had certain advantages. I lived in Warrenpoint, then as now a far more salubrious place than Mr. McCourt's Limerick. I had the advantage of steady parents. My father was a sober man, hard working, domestically reliable, cautious about money, an ungregarious character, a minder of his own business. My mother was a frail creature, often ill, but the only fault she had was on evidence in the kitchen: she was a terrible cook; in every other respect, she was fine.
Mr. McCourt's mother was woebegone for good reason and as if on principle. His father, Malachy McCourt, was an idler, a drunkard, a layabout, a singer of patriotic ballads, a praiser of gone times, a sentimentalist, a slob, a sot addicted to the company of sots. So the miseries of Frank McCourt's childhood are attributable to his father. A more generous welfare system would have helped, but de Valera's Ireland was in the throes of the "economic war" with England, and life was hard. Nonetheless, neither Ireland nor Catholicism was to blame; Malachy McCourt was the sole miscreant. He would have done the same damage to wife and children if he had given up the Faith and stayed in Brooklyn. Fair is fair.
To start at the beginning: Malachy McCourt was born and reared on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. We are asked to believe that he joined the old I.R.A. and committed such gory deeds that a price was put on his head. It may be true, but I doubt it. Maybe he took up arms in the Rising of Easter Week 1916 or in the Troubles of the years leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. Maybe he chose the Republican side in the civil war of 1922–23 and thought it wise to clear off to America in 1923 or later. Frank McCourt gives no evidence, no detail. His father's name does not appear in the list of those who fought in 1916 and were later given pensions for their services. I suspect that the whole story of escaping from Ireland is a fabrication on his father's part, a tale of derring-do recited and repeated with an air of drama to impress the children.
All we know is that at some point—the first chapter is tellingly short on dates—Malachy McCourt immigrated to America. Later he met Angela Sheehan, a recent emigrant from the slums of Limerick. They married on March 28, 1930, and had their first child, Frank, on Aug. 19 of the same year. A year later they had another boy, Malachy. Then twins, Oliver and Eugene, and a girl, Margaret. Their prospects in Brooklyn being poor, the family decided to go back to Ireland, first to Toome, then to Limerick. Relatives provided them with tickets. Angela's Ashes is a memoir of the years in Limerick from 1934, by my count, to 1948 or thereabouts. Angela and Malachy had two more children, Michael and Alphonsus, but they lost Margaret and the twins. Eugene died (like my own brother John) of pneumonia, Oliver probably of the same disease. The book ends in 1948 with Frank fulfilling his father's dream of the boy's going back to America:
"And some day I'll go back to America and get an inside job where I'll be sitting at a desk with two fountain pens in my pocket, one red and one blue, making decisions. I'll be in out of the rain and I'll have a suit and shoes and a warm place to live and what more could a man want? He says you can do anything in America, it's the land of opportunity. You can be a fisherman in Maine or a farmer in California. America is not like Limerick, a gray place with a river that kills."
Frank McCourt lives in New York still, a teacher, husband, father, grandfather, occasional actor; in short, a personage.
The one clear fact about the years in Limerick is that they were dreadful. Malachy McCourt rarely had a job. When he had one, he lost it. He got the dole—19 shillings and sixpence a week—but he drank it. No wonder Frank McCourt reports these domestic events in the continuous present tense:
"I'm 7, 8, 9 going on 10 and still Dad has no work. He drinks his tea in the morning, signs for the dole at the Labor Exchange, reads the papers at the Carnegie Library, goes for his long walks far into the country. If he gets a job at the Limerick Cement Company or Rank's Flour Mills he loses it in the third week. He loses it because he goes to the pubs on the third Friday of the job, drinks all his wages and misses the half day of work on Saturday morning."
When the United States joined the Allies in 1941 to defeat Hitler, the Germans and the Japanese, Malachy McCourt decided that the war was not England's usual mischief but a worthy cause. He went to Coventry, ostensibly to work in a munitions factory and send back large sums of money for the support of his family. Instead he bummed around, drank whatever wages he earned and forgot to mail the money. In the end he went to Belfast and died there in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Meanwhile his wife and children lived on loans, debts, the charity of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and petty thefts when the going was particularly rough.
The most touching chapters of the book deal with Frank McCourt's schooling and his illnesses. He attended Leamy's National School, a decent enough institution and just as good as the Christian Brothers' School in Newry that I attended during the same years. I recognize many of the types of pedagogy; Mr. Benson, for instance:
"If he had his way we'd be learning our religion in Latin, the language of the saints who communed intimately with God and His Holy Mother, the language of the early Christians, who huddled in the catacombs and went forth to die on rack and sword, who expired in the foaming jaws of the ravenous lion. Irish is fine for patriots, English for traitors and informers, but it's the Latin that gains us entrance to heaven itself."
Patrick Crinion, the best teacher I had in Newry, taught me Irish and Latin with similar fervor, though his terms of exaltation were national and civic rather than religious. I recognize, too, Frank McCourt's Mr. O'Neill, who thought that the true basis of education was the geometry of Euclid:
"Without Euclid, boys, mathematics would be a poor doddering thing. Without Euclid we wouldn't be able to go from here to there. Without Euclid the bicycle would have no wheel. Without Euclid St. Joseph could not have been a carpenter for carpentry is geometry and geometry is carpentry."
Frank McCourt was not sickly by nature or heredity, but he contracted typhoid from contaminated food or water, I assume, and appalling sanitary arrangements in his various lodgings. He also suffered a bad dose of conjunctivitis. For the typhoid, he spent 14 weeks in the Fever Hospital at the City Home. The hospital was well managed by nuns, but it was not medically advanced. With the introduction of the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes and better funding, hospitals gradually improved. But they had to wait for the invention of penicillin and the development of other antibiotic drugs: in the meantime, proper food and rest were nearly the only treatment for typhoid fever. In the hospital, young Frank was next-door to a girl, Patricia Madigan, who was dying of diphtheria. She had two books by her bedside, one an anthology of English poetry that I also had in Newry, The Poet's Company, from which Mr. McCourt committed to memory—as I did—a poem called "The Highwayman." Her other book was a short history of England that happened to contain the first lines of Shakespeare that Mr. McCourt read, the Queen's rebuke to Cardinal Wolsey in Act II, Scene 4 of King Henry VIII:
I do believe, Induced by potent circumstances, That thou art mine enemy.
Not a bad introduction to a certain style of English. Frank McCourt's prose has other sources. For the most part, his style is that of an Irish-American raconteur, honorably voluble and engaging. He is aware of his charm but doesn't disgracefully linger upon it. Induced by potent circumstances, he has told his story, and memorable it is.
Angela's Ashes (memoir) 1996
SOURCE: "Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood," in The New York Times, September 17, 1996.
[In the review below, Kakutani asserts that McCourt's father bequeathed to him "two things: a childhood of awful, bone-chilling poverty and illness, and a magical gift for storytelling."]
"I know when Dad does the bad thing," Frank McCourt writes of his father in this remarkable new memoir [Angela's Ashes]. "I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O'Connell's shop but I don't want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I'm up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep? He lights the fire and makes the tea and sings to himself or reads the paper to me in a whisper that won't wake up the rest of the family."
Frankie's father tells him stories about great Irish heroes like Cuchulain and makes up stories about their neighbors down the street. He tells Frankie about "the old days in Ireland when the English wouldn't let the Catholics have schools," and he tells him about the world beyond the shores of Ireland where men like Hitler, Mussolini and "the great Roosevelt" make history. He bequeaths to Frankie two things: a childhood of awful, bone-chilling poverty and illness, and a magical gift for storytelling.
Frank McCourt, who taught writing for many years in the New York public school system, waited more than four decades to tell the story of his childhood, and it's been well worth the wait. With Angela's Ashes, he 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. He has written a book that stands with The Liars Club by Mary Karr and André Aciman's Out of Egypt as a classic modern memoir.
There is not a trace of bitterness or resentment in Angela's Ashes, though there is plenty a less generous writer might well be judgmental about. Indeed Mr. McCourt's childhood is, as he has said, "an epic of woe." Besides a father who drank away the family's meager food money and a mother who was reduced to begging, there were three siblings who died in infancy from illness. The McCourts were too poor to afford sheets or blankets for their flea-infested bed, too poor to buy new shoes for the children, too poor to get milk for the new baby. A boiled egg was considered a luxury, a bit of discarded apple peel a coveted treat.
Mr. McCourt's parents started out as immigrants in New York, but America hadn't turned out to be the promised land they'd hoped. Not only was the family trying to cope with the Depression, but Malachy McCourt also had a way of taking his sporadic paychecks to the local bar and not returning home. It wasn't long before the family was headed back across the Atlantic to Ireland, where there were relatives who could help out with the four children.
Things, however, were considerably worse in Limerick than they were in Brooklyn. No work for Frankie's Dad, no decent place to live. After a series of moves, the family ends up in a ramshackle apartment that reeks from the public lavatory next door. The downstairs (known as Ireland) is unlivable: flooded in the winter and overrun with rats and flies in the summer; the upstairs (known as Italy) is where the family spends most of its time, burning wood from one of the walls whenever it gets cold. The three months Frankie spends in the hospital with typhoid fever feel like a vacation: a bed with real sheets, a bath with hot water and even books to read.
"The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year's Eve," Mr. McCourt writes. "It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges."
"From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp," he goes on. "Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whisky."
During the war, Frankie's father leaves home to take a job at a munitions factory in England, but the paychecks he's supposed to send home never arrive. Frankie starts stealing bread and milk so the family will have something to eat. He dreams of growing up and getting a job so his mother will have money for eggs and toast and jam. He dreams of buying his younger brothers shoes that aren't patched with tire treads and clothes that aren't riddled with holes. He dreams of escaping to America to make a new life.
Writing in prose that's pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young 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. He introduces us to the schoolmasters who terrorized (and occasionally, inspired) their pupils, the shopkeepers who extended credit to the poor and the priests who listened to the confessions of young boys preoccupied with sex and sin and shame.
Mr. McCourt's own relatives form a Dickensian gallery of characters. There's his hideous Aunt Aggie, who calls him "scabby eyes" and predicts he'll "run off and marry an English tart" and cover his house "with pictures of the royal family." There's Cousin Laman, who lost his commission with the Royal Navy when his unrequited crush on Jean Harlow drove him to drink and ruin. And there's Frankie's long-suffering mother, Angela, who tries to hold together a family of five on 19 shillings a week.
In the end, of course, Mr. McCourt's memoir is not just the story of his family's struggles, but the story of his own sentimental education: his discovery of poetry and girls, and his efforts to come to terms with God and death and faith. By 11, he's the chief breadwinner for the family. By 15, he's lost his first girlfriend to tuberculosis. By 19, he's saved enough money to make his escape to the States.
The reader of this stunning memoir can only hope that Mr. McCourt will set down the story of his subsequent adventures in America in another book. Angela's Ashes is so good it deserves a sequel.
SOURCE: "With Love and Squalor," in Washington Post Book World, September 29, 1996, pp. 1, 10.
[In the review below, King describes Angela's Ashes as "an instant classic of the genre—all the more remarkable for being the 66-year-old McCourt's first book."]
"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. 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 childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."
It takes a tough reviewer to resist quoting this paragraph from the opening page of Angela's Ashes, and it takes a splendid writer to fulfill the promise of those lines. I am not that reviewer, but Frank McCourt is definitely that writer. This memoir is an instant classic of the genre—all the more remarkable for being the 66-year-old McCourt's first book.
The story McCourt tells was a familiar one to earlier generations of Irish and Irish Americans. McCourt was just 4, the oldest of Angela and Malachy McCourt's four living children, when the family left the land of his birth to seek a better life across the sea. They were, however, reversing the usual path—returning to Ireland, where both parents had been born, from the States, where they had met and married and where Malachy's drinking, the death of a baby daughter, and other misfortunes had reduced them to an existence so squalid that even Limerick in the 1930s seemed more promising. Besides, they were embarrassing their respectable relatives, who conspired to ship them back to the Old Country.
There things got worse. The chief cause of their woes was "the curse of the Irish," "the craving," Malachy McCourt's alcoholism. On the rare occasions when he had a job, Malachy was likely to have spent his weekly paycheck long before reaching the stinking lane where the family lived. When he didn't have a job, there was the national "dole" or the charity of institutions or individuals or, at the nadir of their need, begging (Angela) and stealing (Frank). Few writers have written as powerfully of hunger as experienced by the young. In one vivid scene, a ravenous Frank dines on the grease from the discarded newspaper wrapping of an order of fish and chips. "I lick the front page, which is all advertisements for films and dances in the city. I lick the headlines. I lick the great attacks of Patton and Montgomery in France and Germany; I lick the war in the Pacific. I lick the obituaries and the sad memorial poems, the sports pages, the market prices of eggs, butter and bacon. I suck the paper till there isn't a smidgen of grease."
Conversely, never has a boiled egg seemed so appealing as when the elder McCourt divides his into five slices for his wife and children. Such scenes of paternal solicitude are rare, however. Though Frank listened enchanted to his father's tales of the mythical Irish hero Cuchulain, much more common were the Thursdays
when Dad gets his dole money at the Labour Exchange and a man might say, Will we go for a pint, Malachy? and Dad will say, One, only one, and the man will say, Oh, God, yes, one, and before the night is over all the money is gone and Dad comes home singing and getting us out of bed to line up and promise to die for Ireland when the call comes. He even gets Michael up and he's only three but there he is singing and promising to die for Ireland at the first opportunity…. I'm nine and [his brother] Malachy is eight and we know all the songs. We sing all the verses of Kevin Barry and Roddy McCorley, "The West's Asleep," "O'Donnell Abu," "The Boys of Wexford".
Meanwhile, Angela, the mother, makes ineffectual threats and finds her only solace in smoking cigarettes and gazing into the ashes of the fire. (Whence, I suppose, the not very satisfactory title.)
Angela's Ashes confirms the worst old stereotypes about the Irish, portraying them as drunken, sentimental, bigoted, bloody-minded dreamers, repressed sexually and oppressed politically, nursing ancient grievances while their children (their far-too-many children) go hungry. It 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.
For if the physical conditions of Frank McCourt's Limerick childhood were appalling—fleas, rats, a single malodorous toilet for 11 families, TB, typhoid fever, diphtheria and the deadly damp from the River Shannon—and the emotional conditions were impoverished by his family's inability to express love, he emerged with at least one great inheritance: the Irish gift for, and love of, language and music. His father's favorite political dirges echo throughout the book.
On Mountjoy one Monday morning High upon the gallows tree, Kevin Barry gave his young life For the cause of liberty …
When all around a vigil keep, The West's asleep, the West's asleep— Alas, and well may Erin weep When Connacht lies in slumber deep …
Hospitalized with typhoid fever, Frank learns his first lines of Shakespeare, and "it's like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words." During that same hospital stay, an illiterate janitor memorizes Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman" to please him.
McCourt was still a teenager when he fled Limerick for New York. There he taught writing at Stuyvesant high school and, according to the dustjacket, "performed with his brother Malachy in a musical review about their Irish youth." This memoir is good enough to be the capstone of a distinguished writing career; let's hope that it is only the beginning of Frank McCourt's.
SOURCE: "From 'Ashes' to Stardom," in Newsweek, August 25, 1997, pp. 66-70.
[In the following essay, Jones discusses the popular and literary success of Angela's Ashes, describing the book as "the publishing event of the decade."]
Frank McCourt is not without sin. But no one could confess with more charm. In the course of defending the accuracy of his memoir, Angela's Ashes, McCourt admits that he erred at least once, a mistake he discovered last October when he traveled back to Limerick, the Irish city where his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of growing up poor is set. He was autographing books in a bookstore when a man approached and introduced himself as Willie Harrell, one of the boys that little Frankie McCourt grew up with. "Weak and leaning on a stick and looking like he was 100 years old," Harrell congratulated McCourt on a fine job of writing. Then he leaned across the table and said, "In your book you give me a sister, and Frankie, I had no sister." McCourt shakes his head. "This was true. Somehow or other, I invented a sister for him who had none. But we chatted awhile, and finally Willie says, 'Frankie, I'd love a copy of your book. But I'm on the pension these days, and I was wondering, could you see letting me have a copy?'" And McCourt, still embarrassed, says of course he can. "That's fine, then," Willie says, "you let me have this book, Frankie, and we'll be forgetting about the sister."
Since then, this 67-year-old former schoolteacher has done very little apologizing for the book that has become the publishing event of the decade. Scribner has printed more than 1.3 million copies. It's been on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year; on July 13 it jumped back to No. 1 for the fifth time, and is there still. It won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. American booksellers named it their favorite book of 1997.
Reduced to its essentials, Angela's Ashes looks like an encyclopedia of Irish cliché—the alcoholic pa, the long-suffering ma, the wee lads without a crust between 'em. A natural storyteller and wit, McCourt sidesteps sentimentality with a litany of hardship that would make a cynic flinch. "My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born," his book begins. By the time the family moved back to Ireland in 1934, 4-year-old Frank had gained three brothers and lost a sister. Two more brothers would be born, and two would die. The father drank his paycheck and eventually wandered off for good during World War II. The mother, the Angela of the title, begged for charity and lived off the mingy help of relatives, at one point sleeping with a cousin so that her children might have a place to live. People who haven't read the book always ask, "Isn't it awfully depressing?" Yes, but it's also awfully funny. The genius of the book is that the tears and laughter are rarely separated by so much as a comma.
The success this book is having isn't supposed to happen in modern publishing, a world where "literary" and "best seller" are never used in the same sentence. U.S. tradebook sales have been off as much as 12 percent this year. This summer HarperCollins, one of the nation's largest publishers, lopped more than 100 titles off its trade list and then announced that it would take a $270 million charge against earnings this fiscal year. Meanwhile, independent booksellers—the very people publishers count on to handsell literary work like McCourt's—continued to lose market share, while chain stores and book clubs kept getting fat. "If you have only a few copies of a book in a huge store, none of the help knows what it is," says one publicity director. "You need Barnes & Noble to take 50,000 copies so the book will be in evidence." That's gloomy news for a book like Angela's Ashes, which had a first printing of 27,000—a healthy first printing for an unknown author. But as Patricia Eisemann, publicity director at Scribner, puts it, "The rules only apply when the rules apply, and in Frank's case, none of the rules apply."
For example, he got very little television exposure at first—the Today show didn't book him until he won the Pulitzer Prize, and he's never been on Oprah—but that didn't matter. Old-fashioned bookselling—excitement inside the publishing house, enthusiastic booksellers and lots of good reviews—sent McCourt onto the best-seller list. Once that happened, the chains started to pay attention. That's when sales hit warp speed.
"One of the great things about the chain stores is that you have very good bookstores in communities that really never had bookstores," observes Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic. "So you have the ability every once in a while—with David Guterson, with Carol Shields, with Annie Proulx—to sell huge numbers of a serious book. Seven to 10 years ago, you could never have conceived of selling 2.5 million copies of Snow Falling on Cedars in trade paperback; 300,000 would have been a giant number."
Self-effacing to a fault, McCourt claims not to understand why his book is so popular. "I thought it might appeal to women who had been through childbirth and some adversity," he says dryly. But the fact is, McCourt himself is the not-so-secret ingredient in the book's success. He's a publicist's dream: a first-rate writer with stage presence. He knows just how much personal lore to confide in an interview—he's had a couple of bad marriages, he's a lapsed Roman Catholic, he can take a drink without any problem—but he's never embarrassingly indiscreet. Throw in a slight Irish brogue, offset it with a sardonic sense of his own heritage—"A well-placed bomb at the New York St. Patrick's Day parade would wipe out the cream of Irish mediocrity"—and you can see why Scribner's Eisemann says, "Frank and Angela's Ashes are a majestic combination: a book that talks and an author who talks."
His schedule—bookstore signings, readings, interviews—is a half-inch thick, and he's booked through April 1998. McCourt's only grumble is that he has no time to write, but he grumbles with a grin. With seven-figure deals for paperback rights, movie rights and the rights to his next book (an Angela sequel), he's bought plusher digs in Manhattan and daydreams of buying a place in Ireland. With a horse on it. Meanwhile, he's seeing the world at his publishers' expense.
This summer he addressed the graduating class of Stuyvesant High School, where he taught for 18 years until he retired in 1987. He put in a good-natured appearance as himself on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live—his brother, the actor Malachy McCourt, plays a freelance anarchist on the show. Esquire has just paid him $1,000 to begin a story that will be completed a sentence at a time by other writers. And he had his first taste of raw celebrity in a New York restaurant when a woman swooped down and demanded his autograph. "I don't know who you are," she said, "but I know you're somebody."
In July he was back in Ireland, where his book is a No. 1 best seller, signing books and giving readings. Throughout the week, from Dublin to Belfast to Sligo to Galway, store after store, he was unflappable, agreeably chatting, signing, answering questions from reporters, fans and the merely curious. But the fifth stop was Limerick, his hometown, and the very fount of memory. And it made him uneasy. Driving in that morning, he'd said, "It's Limerick you worry about. Limerick is where the experts are."
Sure enough, at O'Mahony's bookstore, there was Billy Campbell, little Frankie's boyhood friend all grown up and wearing an L.A. Dodgers cap and looking bored when asked if McCourt got it right in his book. "Accurate enough," he murmurs at first. Then, as if he's afraid he's sounded stingy, he says, "Frankie has the gift. He brought it all back. There's a lot in there we hadn't remembered." Before he can go on, a man comes up, throws a yellowed photograph on the table and says, "Do you know what that is?" McCourt says of course, it's the picture of his class at Leamy's National School, the picture in the front of his book. "Which one am I?" the man demands to know. McCourt can't say. This provokes a tirade. "You've insulted the fair name of Ireland, you've besmirched the fair name of Limerick, and you've insulted your poor dead mother. Here's what I think of your book." Thereupon he tore his copy in two.
McCourt's voice takes on a hard edge when he starts to address the crowd a few minutes later. "I can do no more than tell the truth," he begins. "People who think I have insulted Ireland or Limerick or my family HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK!" An ovation drowns out whatever he says next. Then he begins to read, and the rancor evaporates from his voice.
"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. 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 childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." As always, this line gets a big laugh, but the mood of this reading is different from all the others. The bleak passages that McCourt picks to read far outnumber the funny stories, beginning with the ingredients of his childhood—"the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters." He stops and tells of going through his mother's things after she died. "She kept a sort of diary, and the very first thing she wrote in there was 'I must have been the most unfortunate creature God ever made'." Hearing this—and maybe it's hearing this in Limerick—you realize that for McCourt, Angela's Ashes, for all its art, is first and last the marrow of his life and the life of his family.
McCourt has a child's eyes, merry and quizzical, and when he's showing a stranger around Limerick, it's the city of half a century ago that he sees. "There were no stoplights in Limerick when I was a boy," he recalls. "People drove cattle and sheep down the street." On Barrack Hill, where much of Angela's Ashes takes place, the slums were razed long ago, but the humiliating memories of poverty and a censorious middle class are not so easily erased. "The frown. Everything then was a frown. All these people had was tremendous dignity, but I don't know how my generation survived. Today I saw [one of the boys from the book]. He told me that a day doesn't go by that he doesn't think of suicide."
People are always asking, how does he remember so much? And how much is an Irish storyteller's embroidery? The earliest memory in his book takes place when he's 3—64 years ago. "We had nothing, no television, no radio, nothing to get in the way," McCourt replies. "We read by the street light at the top of the lane, and we acted out the stories. Malachy and I would do P.G. Wodehouse, still do. But otherwise there was no secondhand material. You saw the various habits and conditions of your neighbors. The uncluttered life is the key to a good memory.
"When I came to America, all I had was this story," McCourt says. "It took me two years and all my life to write it." He took a stab at a fictional version in the '60s but stuck it in a drawer. He had arrived in America at 19 in 1949 and worked at a variety of jobs, from hotel porter to dockworker. After the Korean War, he used the GI Bill to put himself through New York University, and then he began to teach. He started out at vocational schools and then, for 18 years, taught English at prestigious Stuyvesant High, where he is still a legend among the alumni. "When we were in 12th grade," recalls Maura Whalen, who studied with him in the '70s, "we started calling him Frank. He said this was undignified and we weren't to do it. We could call him Fra, he said, and when we graduated we could call him the full Frank."
Whalen remembers McCourt's funny stories about his past, "but not learning about the depths of the hardship and the sadness." Nor does Jack Deacy, deputy press secretary to the mayor of New York, who first hung out with McCourt in the '60s at the Lion's Head bar in Greenwich Village. By then, all four McCourt boys and their mother had been living in New York, and it was Malachy, according to Deacy, whom people thought of when they thought of a McCourt. Malachy was the man who started New York's first singles bar, the raconteur famous for his monologues on Jack Paar's show and, everyone assumed, the most important member of the duo when he and Frank put together their cabaret revue, "A Couple of Blaguards," a series of autobiographical comic sketches they performed in New York, Chicago and San Francisco in the '80s. Malachy, who is writing his own memoir, "A Monk Swimming," smiles wistfully when he says, "Frank was always the brother of Malachy McCourt. Now I'm the brother of Frank McCourt."
Immigrating to New York, McCourt says, was like discovering oxygen, and he sees his life there as a series of turning points, Joycean epiphanies. "Whatever I discovered about myself, I discovered in New York, reading, talking to kids, getting a sense of accomplishment from being a teacher." There was his third marriage, in 1994, to Ellen Frey, who, he says, "taught me to be a grown-up." And then there was Chiara, his 5-year-old granddaughter. "I was babysitting her one day when she was 2, and I began to notice how she talked. You gave her a ball, and said, 'Ball,' and she said it after you and you could see her file this piece of information away. Kids take what they need. And they talk in the present tense. So I began to think about how I could use this." A few days later, he found himself writing, "I'm in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother, Malachy. He's two, I'm three. We're on the seesaw"—early lines in the book. The child's voice, the innocent eye through which we see the world of Angela's Ashes, was born then and there. "It was like a gift," McCourt says. "This was one of those books that had to be written. If I'm happy now, it's because I wrote that book and it's successful and I'm embraced all over the place. If I hadn't written it, I'd probably be sitting around thinking about going back to teaching. I'd feel unfulfilled, as they say. And I'd die howling."
Angela's Ashes was written, in large part, to lay ghosts to rest, and in that sense it was a failure. Every time he goes back to Limerick, McCourt realizes that he has no armor against the past. "I'm haunted by the place. I know every street, every door, because I delivered telegrams all over. That was the most emotional, most hopeful time of my life. I would be struck with such ecstasy that I would cry out in the street." The past, he has come to realize, is not something to banish but something to be lived with. "It's very satisfying to come home now," he says, staring out the window of the car that's taking him away, to Cork and the next round of book signings. "The city has changed and I've changed. I don't go home with that chip on my shoulder. I used to get off the plane at Shannon and I'd get very angry about my past. I'd see a priest and I'd want to haul him off his bicycle." But was there no sense of release when he finished the book? He doesn't answer immediately. Limerick is sliding away in the rearview mirror. "There was no sense of release. As long as you have memory there's no catharsis." Objects in the mirror are closer than they seem.