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Memories Of An Irish Childhood -- Frank Mccourt Tells A Difficult Tale With Wit And Beauty

----------------------------------------------------------------- "Angela's Ashes: A Memoir" by Frank McCourt Scribner, $24 -----------------------------------------------------------------

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. 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."

It takes a tough reviewer to resist quoting this paragraph from the opening page of "Angela's Ashes," and it takes a splendid writer to fulfill the promise of those lines. I am not that reviewer, but Frank McCourt is definitely that writer. This memoir is an instant classic of the genre - all the more remarkable for being the 66-year-old McCourt's first book.

The story McCourt tells was a familiar one to earlier generations of Irish and Irish Americans. McCourt was just 4, the oldest of Angela and Malachy McCourt's four living children, when the family left the land of his birth to seek a better life across the sea.

They were, however, reversing the usual path - returning to Ireland, where both parents had been born, from the States, where they had met and married and where Malachy's drinking, the death of a baby daughter, and other misfortunes had reduced them to an existence so squalid that even Limerick in the 1930s seemed more promising.

Besides, they were embarrassing their respectable relatives, who conspired to ship them back to the Old Country.

`The craving'

There things got worse. The chief cause of their woes was "the curse of the Irish," "the craving," Malachy McCourt's alcoholism. On the rare occasions when he had a job, Malachy was likely to have spent his weekly paycheck long before reaching the stinking lane where the family lived. When he didn't have a job, there was the national "dole" or the charity of institutions or individuals or, at the nadir of their need, begging (Angela) and stealing (Frank).

Few writers have written as powerfully of hunger as experienced by the young. In one vivid scene, a ravenous Frank dines on the grease from the discarded newspaper wrapping of an order of fish and chips.

"I lick the front page, which is all advertisements for films and dances in the city," writes McCourt. "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."

Conversely, never has a boiled egg seemed so appealing as when the elder McCourt divides his into five slices for his wife and children. Such scenes of paternal solicitude are rare, however.

Though Frank listened enchanted to his father's tales of the mythical Irish hero Cuchulain, much more common were the Thursdays "when Dad gets his dole money at the Labour Exchange and a man might say, Will we go for a pint, Malachy? and Dad will say, One, only one, and the man will say, Oh, God, yes, one, and before the night is over all the money is gone and Dad comes home singing and getting us out of bed to line up and promise to die for Ireland when the call comes. He even gets Michael up and he's only three but there he is singing and promising to die for Ireland at the first opportunity . . . I'm nine and (his brother) Malachy is eight and we know all the songs. We sing all the verses of Kevin Barry and Roddy McCorley, `The West's Asleep,' `O'Donnell Abu,' `The Boys of Wexford'."

Meanwhile, Angela, the mother, makes ineffectual threats and finds her only solace in smoking cigarettes and gazing into the ashes of the fire. (Whence, I suppose, the not very satisfactory title.)

Confirming stereotypes

"Angela's Ashes" confirms the worst old stereotypes about the Irish, portraying them as drunken, sentimental, bigoted, bloody-minded dreamers, repressed sexually and oppressed politically, nursing ancient grievances while their children (their far-too-many children) go hungry. It confirms the stereotypes at the same time that it transcends them through the sharpness and precision of McCourt's observation and the wit and beauty of his prose.

If the physical conditions of Frank McCourt's Limerick childhood were appalling - fleas, rats, a single malodorous toilet for 11 families, TB, typhoid fever, diphtheria and the deadly damp from the River Shannon - and the emotional conditions were impoverished by his family's inability to express love, he emerged with at least one great inheritance: the Irish gift for, and love of, language and music.

Hospitalized with typhoid fever, Frank learns his first lines of Shakespeare, and "it's like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words." During that same hospital stay, an illiterate janitor memorizes Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman" to please him.

McCourt was still a teenager when he fled Limerick for New York. There he taught writing at Stuyvesant High School and, according to the dust jacket, "performed with his brother Malachy in a musical review about their Irish youth."

This memoir is good enough to be the capstone of a distinguished writing career. Let's hope that it is only the beginning of Frank McCourt's.

Copyright Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

Nina King is the editor of the Washington Post's Book World.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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