Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. Recommended as a good fiction.
Angela’s Ashes is the chronicle of author Frank McCourt’s childhood, first in America, then in Ireland, or purports to be. The sadness, tragedy, ugliness, and despair are laid on so thickly as to become improbable in combination. Bad things happen to good people, but in McCourt’s world, the worst always happens. When the family moves, it is to the worst house on the lane, next to the only outhouse. When it rains, their house is the one that floods. When he develops conjunctivitis, it is permanent (he still has it years later). When other kids’ alcoholic fathers go to England during the war to earn money, his is the only one who drinks his pay away and loses the job. Nothing is ever halfway for McCourt. If there is a tragedy to tell, it will be the most tragic conceivable.
There are inconsistencies, such as time frames that make no sense, as well as improbabilities, like his grandmother making several walking round trips of over a mile, all in one night, months before her death. There is also the issue of whether McCourt could possibly recall such detail (as his lengthy story about the IRA refusing to helping his father out and why) during his very early years without any context. It would be as though you were four years old and heard your father talking about the New Deal, and you remembered everything about it even though you had no idea at the time what all the acronyms represented. Oddly, while McCourt goes into great detail about his early childhood, his timeline becomes increasingly compressed as he approaches adolescence. There is much less detail, and whole months are passed by just at a time when a person would be more likely to remember more — and to be experiencing more. It almost feels like he grew tired of the tale (and fabricating it) and was in a rush to get to the end. Or perhaps, having gone through a sleazy conception, rats, fleas, sewage, open sores, tuberculosis, vomited blood, corporeal punishment, prolonged hunger, his mother’s prostitution, etc., etc., etc. (no horror goes untouched), he simply ran out of material.
So, from early on, I viewed Angela’s Ashes as a work of fiction in which none of the characters is likeable. While many would say the father is the worst, as he is a hard-core alcoholic who cannot and will not support his family, I found him to be far more sympathetic a person than his mother as portrayed. When sober, the father often shows his sons small signs of affection and empathy, but Angela herself is nearly always cold, distant, and unsympathetic toward her children. She is always more focused on herself than on them. I’m not sure how many people could write about their own mothers as dispassionately as McCourt does. If she had one good quality, McCourt is careful not to present it.
As a child, McCourt seems relatively balanced, likeable, and ethical, wanting to do the right thing, but adolescence seems to turn him into a different person. He lies, he steals, he takes advantage of people — and the only guilt he seems to feel is that imposed by the Catholic Church. There is never a sense, even when he achieves adulthood, that he has any deep thoughts about who he is, what he is doing, and how he affects others. Even his agonizing over his belief that he is responsible for a consumptive girl’s descent into Hell because he had sex with her is tainted by the selfishness of his focus.
In the end, I must concur with an author acquaintance who said, “Angela’s Ashes? ’tis as phony as the photo on the cover.”
But it is certainly well written and compelling, if you happen to have a large grain of salt handy.
18 March 2011
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf