Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt (1996)

Angela's Ashes, cover

I downloaded the audiobook of Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela’s Ashes on 5/27/2002. It has taken me until now to listen to it, probably for the same reason so many people I’ve asked haven’t read it: “I hear it’s great, but isn’t it also depressing as hell?” Yes, and it is a pitch-black comedy and a life-affirming indictment of (and love letter to) the feckin’ Catholic Church.

Angela’s Ashes is hard to begin, and its greatness doesn’t become apparent until more than halfway through. I’ve been listening as I run, which is how I consume most audiobooks. It has slowed me down, and more than once I’ve considered abandoning the story and deleting it forever. Now I’m certain I will return to this story again – I want to start over from the beginning.

Frank McCourt narrates his own memoir, which might be essential to understanding this book. His Irish brogue is revelatory, if only because it reminds the reader (listener) that he did, in fact, survive the events he recounts. It’s difficult to comprehend the poverty McCourt’s family endures, and the derision of those who resent the millstone of the poor around the necks of hardworking, non-freeloading society.

The moment my opinion changed: McCourt’s recounting of his First Communion. He’d been looking forward to the event, because he could wear a suit and make “the collection” around the neighborhood (the neighbors would give him money for his milestone.) Unfortunately, McCourt’s grandmother fed him a grand breakfast after church which upset his stomach (he wasn’t used to so much food) and he threw up in her backyard. She brought him to the church for confession:

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been 48 hours since my last confession.”

“My son, what can you have done in this amount of time?”

“Father, I threw up God all over my grandmother’s backyard.”

The priest can’t answer for laughing, which McCourt communicates from both the child’s understanding and the adult’s perspective.

“Wash it away with some water and say a Hail Mary, my child.”

McCourt exits the confessional and his grandmother asks what the priest said.

“He said to wash it with some water.”

“What kind of water, holy water or regular water?”

“I don’t know, he didn’t say.”

“Well go find out!”

So McCourt returns to the confessional: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been two minutes since my last confession…”

Miraculously, McCourt finds the balance between outrage at the sins of the Church and wonder at those who live its precepts despite every reason not to. He is also fearless in describing the sexual awakening of a teenaged boy, with its constant temptation, guilt, and occasional release. If there is any grace in this story, it’s in the understanding of universal struggles and perseverance, with constant allowance for humor. We’d cry except for laughing so hard.

Angela’s Ashes is more relevant than ever in a world where Government enshrines the right of religion to discriminate against the poor. That is harsh, but it’s the reality we live in. I hated this book, and then I loved it.