Frank McCourt is the star of his own childhood life story, which he brought to the literary world in 1996 with his memoir, Angela's Ashes. The retired school teacher delighted readers with his quietly haunting recount of his upbringing in the slums of Ireland. But just what was it that made this book stand out in the midst of all other nonfiction to achieve bestseller status? The defining feature of this work is the ability of the author to find humor in such unfathomable dire circumstances and to then capture that sentiment in the written word. Frank McCourt, age 67 when he wrote his story, shows his remarkable ability to regurgitate the events of his youth in Ireland by narrating the story with the tenderness of a child's perspective. Without the element of humor as well as this child-view narration, the memoir would not have been nearly the success it turned out to be.
The readers find themselves emotionally attached as they vicariously experience young Frankie's life. This effectiveness is largely due to McCourt's evolving 'innocent-eye' narrative technique; it allows the reader to experience his youth in an evolving form. This unique story-telling technique allows the reader to watch Frank develop through various stages of his childhood, ranging from the age of three to nineteen. As critic Malcolm Jones Jr. notes, "McCourt can climb inside a boy's head and piece the world together with a child's illogic" (Jones, CLC). The transformation in McCourt's writing to convey the shift into older ages is easily identifiable, yet amazingly subtle. The end result is the written text, McCourt's thoughts, and the ensuing relationship with the reader becoming more complex with the evolving narrative voice. When describing his experiences at the age of three, McCourt's writing style mimics a story told from a child's perspective. He uses simple rhetoric accompanied by the untainted discernment of a child: "We're on the seesaw. Up, down, up, down. Malachy goes up. I get off. Malachy goes down. Seesaw hits the ground" (19). McCourt demonstrates a basic, staccato-like sentence structure to present a situation as it would be heard and interpreted by a child. In another instance, Frankie, a few years older, has trouble distinguishing between sounds. Mrs. Leibowitz, a kind neighbor who lives in the same building as the McCourt family, says to Frankie, "Nice Chewish name?Why they give you a Chewish name, eh?" (34). The reader knows that the word Jewish is being spelled with a 'Ch' because that is how it would be heard pronunciated by a child.
Just as simple rhetoric is used throughout the book, so are simple patterns of thought. Children have a tangible stream-of-consciousness which often leads to a tendency of changing subject matter mid-thought: "They have their tea?uncle Pa Keating, who is my uncle because he's married to my aunt Aggie, picks up Eugene" (72). The reader has already been made aware that Pa Keating is the children's uncle long before this moment in the story. This deliberate interjection that McCourt includes is to illustrate the tendency children have to incorporate unnecessary information into an observation. McCourt also portrays how children tend to convey their emotions through visual means, such as when Frank describes the anger he feels as "a blackness" coming over him. Due to his age, he is unable to clearly describe and fully express his thoughts and so resorts to such descriptions. Since children can only perceive things according to how it makes them feel, it is not unusual that little Frank refers to the elders of his family as "big people" (72). At this stage in his life, Frank is easily vulnerable to confusion and cannot comprehend complex concepts. Concepts such as death and religion are especially difficult for a child to understand: "[We] can't have Margaret anymore because she's like the dog in the street that was taken away. I don't know why she was taken away" (38). "Mam tells us that's the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and I want to know why the man's heart is on fire and why doesn't He throw water on it?" A unique relationship begins to form between the author and the reader because of McCourt's effective narrative method. This gives the reader more involvement and greater emotional attachment to the story, the characters, and the eventual outcome.
As Frank ages to eleven years old, the language gradually develops into a moderately complex structure. McCourt begins using sentences with grammatical tools, like commas, that raise the level of complexity of the writing. For instance, the sentence "he drinks his tea in the morning, signs for the dole at the Labour Exchange, reads the papers at the Carnegie Library, goes for long walks far into the country?" shows an elevated level of comprehension in the maturing Frank. At this age Frank begins to give more detailed descriptions to words. Increased outside influences, like education and personal experiences, contribute to Frank's thoughts becoming more multifaceted. His thoughts are insightful but they still illustrate some of his childish gullibility. When his mother has a new child, Frank's brother, Malachy, inquires as to why their mother's bed is in the kitchen. McCourt writes, "I'm older so I tell Malachy the bed is in the kitchen so the angel can fly down and leave the baby on the seventh step but Malachy doesn't understand?he's only eight" (223). The fact he still thinks angels bring newborn babies shows his level of maturity and gullibility. There is a moment of sad humor when young Frank is contemplating death, which portrays the innocence of his mentality, but also his growing sense of skepticism: "The master says it's a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it's a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there's anyone in the world who would like us to live. My brothers are dead and my sister is dead and I wonder if they died for Ireland or the Faith." (113).
Once Frank ages to fourteen years, the written text has matured to convey evolved, complex thoughts. In this last section of the book, the writing has altered noticeably. The heightened complexity of Frank's rhetoric is demonstrated with the following: "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" (325). The text is very descriptive and has an evolved sentence structure, incorporating thoughts and feelings that are deeply profound and characteristic of a maturing adult.
From the beginning through to the middle of the narrative, the reader is presented, rather than described, a scenario where the effect is often left up to interpretation. Nearing the end of the story, improved expressions of thought through Frank's words translate into a truer sense of the reader's comprehension. McCourt concludes with this didactic mode of writing where he explains everything in frank detail, leaving nothing up to interpretation. There is an evolved Frank evidently noticed from the start through to the end. As Frank McCourt grows and develops into an adult the writing evidences it. Thus, the written text, thoughts, and relationship with the reader evolves and becomes more complex as Frank matures. Examples taken from various stages in his youth illustrate these noticeable differences. Through an evolving child-perceiving narrative technique, McCourt establishes a powerful emotional connection with the reader. It is this emotionally-induced rhetoric that has proven to be the driving force of the memoir's popularity with readers.
Another key element that contributes to the success of the book is McCourt's light-hearted treatment of such despicable topics, utilizing a matter-of-fact style and a touch of humor, that keeps the story from ever slipping into self-pity, which it easily could have done in the words of many another author. Had this story been one belonging to the "oh whoa-is-me" category of moaning nonfiction, the public surely would not have embraced it so readily. McCourt describes a life of degrading poverty with amazingly little bitterness. As critic Michiko Kakutani observes, "There is not a trace of bitterness or resentment." In fact, the tone of the book goes so far as to evoke fond remembrance, despite the struggle and strife. Readers observe Frank's "sentimental education" of discovering girls and literature, his coming to terms with religion and death, and the triumph of earning a living in order to escape to America. (Kakutani, CLC).
The fact that McCourt has been deemed a "publicist's dream: a first-rate writer with stage presence," agreed upon by the majority of critics, certainly helps with the lasting popularity of the work (Jones, CLC). Having an author of a book of such raw material who is willing to talk, lecture, and answer "questions from reporters, fans and the merely curious" alike is a great contribution to the lasting success of a bestseller. Additionally, the author's adamant denial of the notion that his memoir disrespects the Irish city he grew up in is supported with his frequent visits to Limerick. He also addresses the debate readily whenever need be, once preempting a reading with: "People who think I have insulted Ireland or Limerick or my family HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK!" (www.limerick.com).
As McCourt speculates on how he survived his childhood on the very first pages of the memoir, the reader is not hit with what entailed that survival until the last page is read. The ability to adapt to whatever life threw at him, no matter how despairing, and the determination to resist what he was destined to become allowed this boy to become the man he is. This underlying theme of 'man triumphs despite impossible odds' attracts mass readers the same way the Great American Novel does; it is a story of Success.
What made the book so compelling as to catapult it to blockbuster status was McCourt's uncanny ability to plug the reader directly into the consciousness of his childhood persona. Raised by a drunken, irresponsible father and a mother reduced to begging just to feed her children (several of whom died very young), McCourt certainly had ample material for a depressing tale. Yet despite the despondency he was faced with throughout his youth, McCourt is able to filter every event of Angela's Ashes through young Frankie's uniquely sharp and dark-humored sensibility. Contrary to what some people wished the novel to be about, the story is not meant to be seen as a statement against the misery of poverty; it is simply meant to recapture the purity of a young boy's view of the world around him.