Have you read Angela’s Ashes? You’re probably nodding with a bit of a wistful look on your face right now. Until last night, when I finished the book, I felt like I was the only one in the world who hadn’t read it. It’s one of those books that’s been on my shelf for years, and I always promised myself I’d get to it “soon.” When Frank McCourt died this summer at the age of 78, I almost felt guilty for never having read it while he was still in the world.
You ask anyone about the book and inevitably you get the same response: “Wow, what a great book, and so, so sad.” And they’re right, the family’s poverty, sibling deaths and the father’s alcoholism and utter disregard for the welfare of his family make for, on the whole, a rather melancholy 360 pages. But what I didn’t expect is how absolutely hysterical the book is at times. In fact, the scenes I’ll almost certainly remember the most from the books are the funny ones.
My favorite scene in the book is the First Communion episode. Young Frank has just received his First Communion and is excited about going on The Collection – a tradition whereby he gets to go around to the neighbors and receive gifts, after which he can afford the rare treat of going to the cinema. But before he can go, his grandmother insists on serving him a rich breakfast, which he promptly vomits all over his grandmother’s backyard. His grandmother is horrified, screaming “I have God in me backyard.” She makes him skip The Collection and go immediately to confession. Even the priest is doing all he can not to crack up when Frank tells him “I threw up my First Communion Breakfast and now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.” The priest tells her to wash God with a little water, but when Frank relays this advice to his grandmother she sends him back in to the confessional to ask “Holy water or ordinary water?” If you don’t think that’s funny, well, you may not have a soul…
The other thing that stands out about this book is McCourt’s lyrical childlike voice. The dialogue is wonderfully Irish and seemingly pitch perfect, and his portrayal of his childhood version of an almost superstitious Catholicism and the accompanying guilt is practically gut-wrenching (i.e., he is stricken with guilt that he sent the girl of his first sexual encounter to hell because she never had a chance to confess before she died).
I loved this book, for its humor, its pathos, its general “funness.” The only thing that made this book sad for me is the knowledge that its author is no longer with us. RIP, Mr. McCourt!
(PS. Yes, I’m still chugging along on The Pillars of the Earth, too, but I had some flights the last two weeks and didn’t want to lug that 1,000-page behemoth in my carry-on bag. Hence, Angela’s Ashes.)