Pete Hamill in awe of Frank McCourt's 'Angela's Ashes'
Hamill: This ferocious book will still be read when all of us are gone
“He says there’s no food in the house, not a scrap of bread, and when he falls asleep, I take the greasy newspaper from the floor. I lick the front page, which is all advertisements for films and dances in the city. I lick the headlines. I lick the great attacks of Patton and Montgomery in France and Germany. I lick the war in the Pacific. I lick the obituaries and the sad memorial poems, the sports pages, the market prices of eggs, butter and bacon. I suck the paper till there isn’t a smidgen of grease.”
Delivering telegrams for a living, he falls in love with a young woman named Theresa. They make love. Over and over again, affirming life. But she has consumption too, and then she dies. Filled with guilt, believing that he has sent her to damnation, Frank slinks into the graveyard and waits until the mourners leave.
“Frost is already whitening the fresh earth on the grave and I think of Theresa cold in the coffin, the red hair, the green eyes. I can’t understand the feelings going through me but I know that with all the people who died in my family and all the people who died in the lanes around me and all the people who left, I never had a pain like this in my heart and I hope I never will again…”
Evelyn Waugh once said that there were only two destinations available to the Irish: Hell or the United States. Frank chose to return to the land of his birth. He went to work at 14, delivering those telegrams, worked at Eason’s, saved, stole a bit, and by the time he was 19, had the fare. Then he was gone, leaving behind the rain, the rats, the stink of shit, the corrupting hypocrisies, the invincible delusions, the wormy sentimentalities. A familiar story, except for the details. And the details are everything.
Frank McCourt doesn’t tell us what he found in America. Or when his marvelous brother, Malachy, followed him to the golden shore. But it is clear from this book that as Faulkner said somewhere, the past is not the past, it hasn’t even passed. It is with us always because we are what we were. One function of autobiography is to find some meaning in one’s own life. When practiced by politicians and generals, it is almost always a brief for the defense, an advertisement for the self, a blathering exercise in publicity. But in the hands of an artist equipped with a ruthless memory, the remembering is the meaning, a defiant blow against the general amnesia of modern life.
Frank McCourt has examined his ferocious childhood, walked around it, relived it, and with skill and care and generosity of heart, has transformed it into a triumphant work of art. This book will be read when all of us are gone.
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