Like a rare Scotch that has aged for a lifetime in an oaken wine cask, the story that Frank McCourt served up in "Angela's Ashes" had aged in his bones until the moment of perfection had been reached.
At the age of 66 he threw "Angela's Ashes" into the wind with a "like it or hate it" bravado and caused a publishing sensation. Critics loved the book. Millions of readers adored it. And yet more than a few despised it, because McCourt refused to polish the picture of the Ireland he grew up in - a country where fathers got drunk while their children went unfed, where living conditions were often dire, and where the clergy were often pompous fools.
McCourt the alchemist dug into the mud and muck of his childhood and transformed it into a masterpiece of storytelling. It takes a rare talent to excavate a miserable childhood and turn it into a literary work of art. It was McCourt's wit, his turns of phrase, his oblique observations, and his unwillingness to wallow in self-pity that appealed to readers.
It was the wit that kept the book from becoming a waist-deep slog and blunted the pain of reading about a child dragged up by a pair of feckless parents.
Not once did McCourt's memoir descend into an "Ah, sure, God help me" tale. Instead, it was the truth of the book that gripped readers by the scruff of the neck from that moment the "knee-trembler put Angela in an interesting condition" until the last line, when McCourt discovered America to be "a great country altogether."
The Irish novelist John McGahern once said that "the true history of the thirties, forties and fifties in [Ireland] has yet to be written." It was McCourt's lifting the corner of the cover-up of Ireland's "true history" that caused many Irish and Irish-American readers to protest the story he told.
It was also his tugging at the concealing veil of what McGahern called "a bigoted, intolerant, cowardly, philistine and spiritually crippled" society that led many to reject "Angela's Ashes."
I personally encountered many angry Irish and Irish-Americans who lashed out at McCourt's "exaggerations" about hunger and poverty - "That never happened. McCourt's a first-class liar."
I was able to tell them that indeed, there had been such poverty throughout Ireland during the '40s and '50s; that a bachelor neighbor on our lane in Mountmellick, County Laois, died of malnutrition; that often when I was eating my bread-and-butter sandwich in the National School in Mountmellick, boys would run past me, grab my lunch and stuff it into their mouths while I chased them. It wasn't until many years later that I realized those lads weren't bullies - they were the starving children of laboring men who depended on the weather for a day's work on a farm.
For me, when Frank McCourt threw his fistful of ashes against the fan, it was a liberation. Even though my parents owned a small farm, which ensured our bellies were full, McCourt allowed me - forced me - to face up to the poverty I lived amidst as a child, a poverty and hunger that did not allow youngsters to do their homework or to care about school because of the pangs in their guts.
In "Angela's Ashes," McCourt admitted to having parents who were, more often than not, worse than useless. Even though he knew that this literary matricide and fratricide would alienate some, McCourt nevertheless hung out the soiled family laundry in the front garden as if to say, "I don't give a damn whether you like it or not; it's my story I'm writing - mine, not yours."
To those who would have said it's not right to speak ill of the dead, I imagine McCourt would have said, "You're right. Hitler was a great fella. Look at the autobahns he built."
Good man, Frank!