Author and raconteur Frank McCourt, in his autobiography, “has examined his ferocious childhood, walked around it, relived it, and with skill and care and generosity of heart, transformed it into a triumphant work of art,” writes Pete Hamill.
Frank McCourt has written a triumphant book. His memoir of an Irish childhood is in turns hilarious, heart-scalding, bitterly angry. It takes us through a world of daily, repetitive, cyclical horror in “the lanes” of Limerick in the 1930s and 1940s, providing the sort of soul-murdering detail that no survivor can ever forget. But McCourt’s soul was not murdered. This book is the proof of his survival. This book, this affirmation of humane values in the face of all odds, is his triumph.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all,” he writes on the first page. “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.”
The tone here is ironical, of course; irony, as practiced by the Jews and the Irish, can be wielded as a weapon, but it is above all a kind of armor. It is adapted as protection against all manner of psychic injury from enemies, from friendly fire, from self-inflicted wounds. Irony creates distance, a certain knowing detachment, while acknowledging membership in the club of human weakness and folly.
“People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”
He is saying: this is a very old story. He is saying too that he is adding to a bookshelf that includes Christy Brown and Brendan Behan, among many others, but that he will tell the story anyway. God, after all, is in the details, and so is the Devil. And he declares his authority in the following blunt sentence:
“Above all — we were wet.”
They were wet upon the return to Ireland, in some unstated year in the early 1930s: four-year-old Frank, his younger brother Malachy, and his twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, who were less than a year old; his father, Malachy, from County Antrim in the North, and his mother, Angela, from the slums of Limerick City. They were heading home to Ireland in gloom and defeat. Malachy, the father, and Angela, the mother, had found their separate ways to New York years earlier, met at a party on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn, and were locked into marriage by the eminent arrival of Frank.
This is told with great good humor and affection for human weakness. Faced with marriage, Frank’s father borrowed money to escape to California; he got drunk instead and wound up on a bench in the station of the Long Island Railroad, the money gone, his life permanently changed.
There is affection too, for life, as Frank McCourt remembers it, in the tenement on Classon Avenue, the arrival of little Malachy, trips to the playground, the good heart of a Jewish neighbor, the birth of a sister named Margaret. And then he introduces, in an indirect way, the great chilly presence that haunts this book. Little Malachy is playing in front of the house when a dog is hit by a car. Malachy tries to help the dog and gets blood all over him. A neighbor tries to explain it to Malachy:
“She tells me the poor wee dog was hit by a car and he crawled all the way from the middle of the street before he died. Wanted to come home, the poor wee creature.”
This is the first of many deaths in this death-haunted book. In brilliantly realized prose, McCourt retrieves from memory the process of coming to consciousness. And death is crucial to the process. As the Depression worsens, poverty becomes a texture of daily life. Now twins are born. McCourt’s memory does not edit the story into sentimentality:
“We have to stay in the playground because the twins are sleeping and my mother says she’s worn out. Go out and play, she says, and give me some rest. Dad is out looking for a job again and sometimes he comes home with the smell of whiskey, singing all the songs about suffering Ireland. Mam gets angry and says Ireland can kiss her arse. He says that’s nice language to be using in front of the children and she says never mind the language, food on the table is what she wants, not suffering Ireland…”
Angela’s mood rises and falls with the father’s ability to put food on the table. He brings home money, and her mood is bright; she washes, cleans, sings a romantic ballad from her youth with a refrain that says, “Anyone can see why I wanted your kiss.” Most of the time, her mood falls into desperation, sorrow, indolence and inertia. The father brings home nothing, except his drunken commands to the older boys to die for Ireland, his songs about Roddy McCorley and Kevin Barry, and his tales of mighty Cuchulainn. Then a girl, Margaret, is born.