Not-So-Great Expectations

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

by Frank McCourt
Touchstone, 363 pp., $14.00 (paper)

These three memoirs are works to end all memoirs—if only that were true! Now, at a time when every form of cultural and human difference claims the right to parade itself, everybody, it seems, has a story to tell and expects to tell it in print. The publishing industry is drowning in personal testimony. Whatever became of the oral tradition—of confidences exchanged sotto voce in barrooms and over backyard fences, between strangers on a plane or a train, among revelers at a banquet table or around an outdoor barbeque?

Notwithstanding these cavils, it must be confessed that Angela’s Ashes is a wonderful book, fully deserving of the top spot on various best-seller lists since it came out in 1996, an inevitable choice for a Pulitzer Prize, and of so beguiling a nature that it has made the author, Frank McCourt, a retired New York City high school teacher, into—what else?—a celebrity. His celebrityhood was brought home to me emphatically a couple of years ago, when he appeared at Douglass College of Rutgers University to give an endowed lecture in a hall with a seating capacity of four hundred. At least twice that many people came to hear him, filling up the aisles and the several exits with standees, a large percentage of the entire crowd clutching copies of Angela’s Ashes for autographing.

Everyone by now must know its story. The time span is from the Depression era through World War II and the first years after. The McCourts, an immigrant family living in Brooklyn, return to Ireland when Frankie is four or so. The father, a Northern Catholic from County Antrim, is a drunkard who drinks up his wages, when he has any, losing job after job and leaving his family in a continuous state of crisis, failing health, and undernourishment. The mother, in the toils of frequent child- bearing and early child-rearing, is not of a character to pull the family through. Angela is not a housekeeper and typically spends her occasional better days drinking tea and gossiping with neighboring cronies. That is not to say she is incapable of rising to the occasion when a child is down with a life-threatening illness, and she will beg in the streets to keep the children from starving to death.

First little Margaret succumbs to the dismal conditions at home. This is in Brooklyn. Later on, when the family has resettled in Limerick, “Mam”‘s birthplace, after some garish adventures in Dublin and Antrim, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, go under. Again the primary cause is the squalid, unhygienic, and pauperized conditions in which the family struggles, while Dad plays his alcoholic’s tricks of losing menial jobs or getting rid of a week’s slender wages in one swaggering night out in the public houses. When he goes over to Coventry, where there is war work, his behavior is no different.

A word about Limerick, a city whose gray walls seem to exude gloom. It is the main scene of Frankie’s boyhood…

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