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The Life Force Triumphs : ANGELA'S ASHES: A Memoir. By Frank McCourt (Scribner: $23, 364 pp.)

September 29, 1996|Mary Morrissey | Mary Morrissy is the author of "A Lazy Eye" and "Mother of Pearl." She reviews fiction for the Irish Times

The Irish American view of the home country--especially among emigrants of Frank McCourt's generation--can often be irritatingly sentimental (usually induced retrospectively) or ingratiatingly stage-Oirishy. No fear of that in "Angela's Ashes"--here is a memoir of blood, snot and tears. In the opening paragraphs, a bemused McCourt ruminates on how he managed to come through his early years: "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

The reader shudders. Are we in for a parochial, church-bashing memoir full of that particularly Irish brand of aggrandizing self-pity? (McCourt has described the book as "an epic of woe.") No again. By the end of this tender, harrowing and bleakly funny volume, the reader, too, is left marveling at how McCourt survived.

Born in New York to Irish emigrant parents, McCourt, aged 4, returns to Limerick with his three brothers to settle in his mother's native city. It is the 1930s and the family is destitute, driven home by the Depression and the death of an idolized infant daughter. McCourt's father, Malachy--"shiftless, loquacious, alcoholic"--cannot hold a job for longer than it takes him to down the first pay packet in a pub.

He is also from the north of Ireland, perhaps his biggest crime in the narrow, bigoted world of then-President Eamon de Valera's Free State. While "Dev" was busily penning his constitution and conjuring up an image of his fledgling state where "comely maidens" would dance at the crossroads, Malachy McCourt was being refused work in Limerick because of his accent.

The McCourts are reduced to a Dickensian round of "relief"--charity from the St. Vincent de Paul society, public assistance from the state, handouts from the priest, medicine from the public dispensary. The family lives in abject poverty in Limerick's notorious slums, sharing the same flea-ridden bed, a bucket with the communal sip of a whole street standing by their front door, damp seeping through the walls. Often hungry, always cold, the children are sent out scavenging for fuel and scraps. McCourt's baby brother dies of pneumonia; a twin follows six months later.

The author's mother, the Angela of the book's title, succumbs to a low-lying grief from which she never really recovers. McCourt describes her as pious and defeated, but this reader found her proud, fickle, feisty and fragile by turns and blessed (or perhaps cursed) with a tender but absurd optimism, epitomized by the flapper dress she keeps in a trunk in case one day she might be asked out dancing.

It is she who bears the brunt of the cycle of anticipation and disappointment that an alcoholic imposes on those he loves. Malachy gets a job; Angela makes feverish plans to pay off their debts, to buy the children shoes; the boys nourish their imaginations on the food they will have--ham, eggs, fish and chips. A doomed kind of hope sustains them and then their father comes home drunk and penniless and the round of begging starts all over again.

Feckless though McCourt's father is, he is never demonized, never reduced to easy stereotype. Here is a man who genuinely loves his children, who comforts and cherishes them. He just can't support them. The young Frank loves, admires and pities his father until Malachy disappears to England to work in a munitions factory during World War II and simply drifts out of their lives.

But "Angela's Ashes" is much more than a personal memoir. It is a pen picture of a lost generation--lost to early death and emigration. McCourt gives us cultural snapshots of these embattled, impoverished lives. Here he is describing a school pal: "Paddy Clohessy has no shoe to his foot, his mother shaves his head to keep the lice away, his eyes are red, his nose always snotty. The sores on his kneecaps never heal because he picks at the scabs and puts them in his mouth. His clothes are rags he has to share with his six brothers and a sister and when he comes to school with a bloody nose or a black eye you know he had a fight over the clothes that morning. He hates school. He's seven going on eight, the biggest and oldest boy in the class and he can't wait to grow up and join the English army and go to India where it's nice and warm and he'll live in a tent with a dark girl with the red dot on her forehead and he'll be lying there eating figs, that's what they eat in India, figs, and she'll cook the curry day and night and plonk on a ukulele and when he has enough money he'll send for the whole family and they'll all live in the tent especially his poor father who's at home coughing up great gobs of blood because of the consumption."

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