I was 15 and in my first year at boarding school when I first read James Joyce. First, DUBLINERS, then PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN. We talked about these books in English class, and I thought about them in my 8' by 10' room, and after a while I decided that I'd been a Jew long enough --- I was going to convert to Catholicism.
This was, of course, not about Jesus in the least. It was about Ireland. The peat. The mist. The pubs. The priests and their secrets. The cooking smells. The accents. The omnipresence of death.
A friend correctly pointed out that I'd get close to none of that by converting to Catholicism, and I returned to sanity shortly thereafter. My Irish fascination also evaporated --- since then, my closest connections to the Emerald Isle are Van Morrison and U2.
Frank McCourt has changed all that. In case you've missed it, ANGELA'S ASHES --- his first book, written after he retired from teaching high school English after thirty years --- has been #2 on the non-fiction bestseller list for months. Time called it the #1 nonfiction book of 1996. It will very likely win a major book award next month. And, sometime before the year 2000, the estimable David Brown will convert it to film.
The story of the first 19 years of his life is harrowing. His parents were poor. His father drank. In five and a half years, his mother had six children --- and three of them died. There was no indoor plumbing. Little food.
A downer, you may think. Not at all. Though horrifying, the book is incredibly funny. The reason: McCourt waited to write until he was beyond bitterness. "I couldn't have written this book 15 years ago because I was carrying a lot of baggage around," he says. "I had attitudes, and these attitudes had to be softened. I had to become, as it says in the Bible, as a child, and the child started to speak in this book. And that was the only way to do it, without judging." He doesn't judge, but everyone else has. And they all say pretty much the same thing: McCourt does for Limerick what Joyce did for Dublin.
But why take anyone's word for it? Grab a copy of ANGELA'S ASHES and see for yourself.
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 20, 2011