Angela's Ashes

By Frank McCourt, Scribner, 364 pages.

By John Glassie
Published September 23, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

why is this dark memoir, from a previously unpublished 66-year-old retired high-school teacher, generating so much buzz in publishing circles?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 father -- a 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.

John Glassie

John Glassie is a writer in New York.

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