Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I Thought Ashes Were Light

Angela's AshesAngela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive 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.”

So begins Frank McCourt's autobiography. And he's right: he had a hard life. But I still don't see that he had any cause to inflict it on the rest of us. I had a rather unpleasant childhood but at least I didn't write a book about it, and if I ever do it will be with significantly more humor and vivacity than this book contained. It wasn't a bad book, it just has absolutely no redemption.

The plot (spoiler): guy meets and impregnates girl in Brooklyn. Guy marries girl, the author is born. Lots of kids born, lots of kids die, father descends into alcoholism and can't keep work. The family goes "on the dole," more kids die, more drinking, more rampant poverty, cruel family, vicious teachers, etc. Then the war. Dad goes to get a job in England, never sends money. Mom gets sick but lives, Frank learns to steal, then gets a job, saves, steals and whatever else he can do to get enough money to move back to America, and the book ends. But oh look, it's an inclusio: we begin with a broke guy having sex in New York, and we end up with a broke guy having sex in New York. Yay!

Perhaps it's as bleak as it is due to looking back on life: whatever you endure as a child is normal. You have no standard beyond your own experience to judge by, so if you ever move from a difficult life to an easier life, you'll come to view your earlier years with more disfavor. But when you are going through them, they're fun, lively and thrilling, not just such extreme, bland lows as we might remember. Definitely not as bad as he remembers. But, c'est la vie.

I will say that between this book and Beloved, I'm beginning to wonder what kind of masochistic guilt motivates the Pulitzer committee: there's something there that isn't right. Sure, a book with no evil is an evil book, but a book with no good is hardly better.

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John Barach said...

Two thoughts stood out for me as I read *Angela's Ashes*. First, I couldn't believe McCourt. I simply don't believe that he could remember, say, a three-page long conversation that took place when he was four.

Second, it seemed to me that he presented his life as if a bunch of things happened to him and around him, but not as if he was responsible for anything.

Later, I read Mary Karr's three memoirs, *The Liar's Club*, *Cherry*, and *Lit*, which I highly recommend. Karr is (sometimes brutally) honest.

She'll tell you what she remembers, but she'll also sometimes say "And there, the memory fades out." She'll mention sometimes that her sister remembers things differently. Oh, and she had her sister and her mother and most of the people who are mentioned in her memoir read the manuscripts before they went to print.

More than that, she is honest about her own faults, too. Highly recommended.

J. A. Broussard said...

Thank you; I'll check her out when I get the chance. And your remarks on McCort were spot on.

Blessings, J. A. Broussard

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