Memoir Review: Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis

ANGELAS ASHESOkay, okay, so I know there’s another memoir in this series. Written in 2005, Teacher Man picks up the story where ‘Tis leaves off in Frank McCourt’s life, and tells the story of the teacher who would become a writer. I don’t feel compelled to read this book, largely because it focuses in on teaching high school in New York City, and that is about the least interesting thing in the world to me. Becoming a writer? Sure. But I’m making an educated decision based on the way I feel about books one and two.

Most everybody has heard of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela’s Ashes (1996). It is one of the more famous memoirs in recent history, or maybe even ever, and has been made into at least one successful movie. Less people have heard of ‘Tis, the next memoir in the series.

Ashes begins with Frank’s mom and dad in New York City and the poverty, alcoholism, and struggle begins immediately. They start having kids, they lose one child, and then they head back to Ireland. They have more kids, lose more kids, and all the while their eldest, Frank, is growing up. Frank’s got troubles. Daddy troubles. School troubles. Finding-the-next-meal troubles. Figuring-out-who-he-is troubles. He makes friends. He navigates Irish Catholicism. He tries to work. He discover his sexuality. And everything rotates around his family, his brothers, his mother, and whatever disastrous home they happen to be in at the time. Dad eventually disappears into his alcoholism and Mom ends up is a compromising situation with her cousin. Frank gets desperate to save up and leave for the U.S. of A.

'TISIn ‘Tis, we see Frank with the struggles of an immigrant and as someone on the bottom rung in New York City. He longs to be a famous writer and to be a beatnik and have money and power and to, well, just fit in and understand this strange country. He works crappy jobs, goes to war, moves from flophouse to flophouse. He meets a woman, loses her, meets another one. He goes to college, becomes a teacher (starting at the way-bottom), struggles with alcoholism, starts a family. And then, to round out the series (without moving on to the last book), he deals with the death of each of his parents.

There is some merit to these books, which many, many people will tell you about. The view of the world from McCourt’s perspective is interesting and can contribute to a more well-rounded world view. He also has moments of brilliance, sentences that cut to the quick or shine out in lyrical beauty. He has that Irish tragi-comedy thing going, a strong Irish voice, and some dark humor. But not enough.

No, I did not find these books to be good enough. Again, the subject matter was interesting and enlightening. But I really struggled with the writing and the plotting. I know that memoirs are not always plotted like novels. But McCourt kept jumping around, dangling, leaving huge questions unanswered. Where are the threads in this story? That wind their way like a dancer from the beginning to the end? There are themes, but like I said, they come and go, duck and weave, and then sometimes just disappear altogether. I would have preferred that McCourt made some sense of his memories before he turned it into a book.

I also found McCourt to be confusing. I felt like I was reading through cotton, some of the time. What was happening? What had I just read? And it seemed like much of the wool-like quality of his writing stemmed from a wooliness in his own mind. Like he isn’t that bright, really. On the other hand, the author and his other characters seem to be telling me that McCourt was smart and he did manage to accomplish a lot in the end. But this just confused me further, because Frank was always so bumbling in his own stories, so confused about his own self, life, and surroundings. He seemed eternally daunted by all things non-Limerick. Or just all things.

And the depravity. Because, in the end, Frank is no moral hero. He ends the first book with a scene of, well, sexual awakening (maybe?) on the level of a brothel encounter and this is supposed to be the golden opportunity he worked so hard for? The shining pinnacle of the American experience? For a young man with no spiritual ties to his religion, I guess so. What I’m saying is that I was never on the same moral page as McCourt and so I found many of his tales to be disturbing and lacking in redemptive quality. The memoirs felt bumbling and bleak and dirty, without a poignancy to lift them up. For me, anyhow.

But there is something in my intuition that tells me a lot of my gripes are with the way that McCourt tells his story, not in the story itself. There are certain authors that make me feel fuzzy in the head, and McCourt is definitely one of them. I don’t like reading fuzzy-in-the-head authors. I relish clarity and honesty so sharp that it zings like a knife’s edge and makes me forget betimes that the writing—or narrator—is there at all. I slogged through Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis because I simply couldn’t lift off into it. Who was this strange man who couldn’t seem to figure anything out? Was he even to be trusted as a narrator? And why-oh-why were his eyes always in such terrible shape?

So, I guess we’re going with this: if you dig memoirs, this is one that you’re going to encounter. And perhaps you should read Angela’s Ashes. I actually liked ‘Tis more, but since I struggled through both, don’t ask me. Read them both, but don’t blame me if you don’t totally like them.

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QUOTES FROM ‘TIS

“I wish there was a little panel I could slide back to release the clouds but there isn’t and I’ll have to find another way or stop collecting dark clouds” (p64).

“It’s not enough to be American. You always have to be something else, Irish-American, German-American, and you’d wonder how they’d get along if someone hadn’t invented the hyphen” (p113).

“It’s a book about growing up poor in Dublin and I never knew you could write things like that. It was all right for Charles Dickens to write about poor people in London but his books always end with characters discovering they’re the long-lost sons of the Duke of Somerset and everyone lives happily ever after” (p198).

“In all my years in Ireland no one ever asked me such questions and if I weren’t madly in love with Mike Small I’d tell her mind her own business about what I’m thinking or what I do for a living” (p263).

“It’s hard to think I would have missed the same tea and bread every day, the collapsed bed swarming with fleas, a lavatory shared by all the families in the lane. No I wouldn’t have missed that but I would have missed the way it was with my mother and brothers, the talk around the table and the nights around the fire when we saw worlds in the flames, little caves and volcanoes and all kinds of shapes and images” (p263).

“…Horace offering me another chunk of sandwich telling me I could use a few pounds on my bones and his surprised look when I nearly drop the sandwich, nearly drop it because of the weakness in my heart and the way tears are dropping on the sandwich and I don’t know why, can’t explain it to Horace or myself with the power of this sadness that tells me this won’t come again, this sandwich, this beer on the pier with Horace that makes me feel so happy all I can do is weep with the sadness that is in it…” (p268-269).

“…I walk west towards Fifth Avenue for a taste of America and the richness that’s in it, the world of the people who sit in the Palm Court of the Biltmore Hotel, people who don’t have to go through life carrying ethnic hyphens. You could wake them in the middle of the night, ask them what they are and they’d say, Tired” (p361).

“It didn’t matter that we had a mortgage on a Cobble Hill brownstone, that we kept in step with out gentrifying couples, exposing our bricks, our beams, ourselves …. Alberta would talk about Queen Anne tables, Regency sideboards, Victorian ewers and I didn’t give a fiddler’s fart” (p473).

“But there are powerful days in room 205 at Stuyvesant High School, when discussion of a poem opens the door to a blazing white lights and everyone understands the poem and understands the understanding and when the light fades we smile at each other like travelers returned” (p476).

“I thought I’d know the grief of the grown man, the fine high mourning, the elegiac sense to suit the occasion. I didn’t know I’d feel like a child cheated” (p486).

“She’d say no matter what he did to us he had the weakness, the curse of the race, and a father dies and is buried only once. She’d say he wasn’t the worst in the world and who are we to judge, that’s what God is for, and out of her charitable soul she’d light a candle and offer a prayer” (p492).

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ANGELAS ASHES MOVIEMOVIE

Angela’s Ashes (1999) was much cleaner, clearer, and straight-forward than the book. It’s hard to watch, just like anything with this subject material would be. And it seems to follow the books so closely that it loses a bit of life or depth. Like it should have been adjusted to reflect the truth more than the literalness. It’s an okay movie and it won’t waste your time. Kind of like the book, but different.

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