The Astronaut

Classification: memoir, non-fiction

Brother #1 came to visit last night. We were talking about books (he’d brought me yesterday’s New York Times Book Review) when he stopped and said, “Oh! I didn’t even know that Frank McCourt was dead. Did you know that?”

“What?” I said. “No, he’s not.”

“Yes, he is! It’s true.” My brother whipped out his iPhone and pulled up McCourt’s wiki page. “Look, right there.”

I pretended to disbelieve the information for another minute. How on earth did I miss that news? Then again, McCourt died in July of 2009, when I was still nursing my second baby. There isn’t a whole lot I remember from that time period.

After Angela’s Ashes (McCourt’s memoir) was published in 1996, even after all the hype and praise, even after the awards, I resisted reading the book for a long time. The main reason? When I picked it up at the store and flipped through it, I noticed that McCourt didn’t use quotation marks around the dialogue in the book.

Well, that’s ridiculous and confusing, I thought, and I set the book down and wandered away.

Eventually, sometime in the early 2000’s, I caved in and bought the book. Once I started reading it I couldn’t stop (and those missing quotation marks were no trouble at all.) When I finished the last page, I looked up and said to myself:

Stunning, stunning, stunning.

That is the most stunning book I’ve ever read.

That’s what I subsequently told anyone who would listen, and it may still be true, all these years later. If you haven’t read Angela’s Ashes, oh, you should.

Frank McCourt grew up in Ireland in the 1930’s, and his childhood defines the term “abject poverty.” His Father was a drunk who periodically abandoned the family; McCourt’s mother, Angela, was left to provide food and shelter for her four surviving children (three others died in infancy.) McCourt lived in places where the floors were covered in water throughout the cold winters, places where there was one outdoor toilet that was shared by the entire neighborhood and was never cleaned by anyone. He ate whatever food his mother could beg for – sometimes there was no food, and the children went hungry. He attended school wearing shoes that were patched together with rubber from bicycle tires, and was taught by Catholic masters who beat their small pupils whenever they felt like it.

The distinctive magic of McCourt’s writing is that it doesn’t contain a trace of self-pity, even when he’s describing the most awful events. His story should be too heartbreaking to read, but it isn’t, because McCourt infuses it with just enough gentle humor and hope.

Angela’s Ashes was so extraordinary, it earned McCourt a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and spent more than two years on international bestseller lists. McCourt went on to write two more bestselling memoirs, ‘Tis and Teacher Man.

Weeks ago, my brother sent me a quote from the TV show Mad Men, and before he even explained the context, I adored the words. “She was born in a barn and she died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”

Frank McCourt grew up chasing rats from his crumbling home, battling typhoid and chronic conjunctivitis, and literally licking food grease off of newspaper pages when he got too hungry. He died as one of the most famous, feted, successful writers in the world.

Frank McCourt was an astronaut.