In childhood misery, a writer finds wisdom ‑and poetry
December 29, 1997

Angela’s Ashes is a success, says the author, because it is “told in the voice of a child, and children tell the truth. People trust it.”

IRELAND, AS W.H. AUDEN OBSERVED IN In Memory of W.B. Yeats, "has her madness and her weather still.” But that famous rain can lift for moments of luminous clarity and madness, like the alcohol and squalor that bound Frank McCourt's youth, sometimes yields its own treasures. Among them: McCourt's bleakly optimistic memoir of life in Limerick.

For more than a year, Angela's Ashes (named for McCourt's star‑crossed, indomitable mother) has perched at the top of The New York Times bestseller list, leaving its 67‑year‑old author, who retired in 1987 after 15 years teaching English at Stuyvesant, an elite Manhattan public high school, to ponder his new role as a literary lion. "I thought I'd get briefly noted with a two‑paragraph review," he says with a chuckle. "They'd say 'charming and lyrical.' They always say that about Irish books." Instead, Angela's Ashes won this year's Pulitzer Prize, while selling an estimated 1.7 million copies. There's a Hollywood movie in the works, and McCourt ‑who lives in New York City with his wife, Ellen Fret, a publicist, and is the father of a grown daughter ‑ is busy writing 'Tis, which continues the story begun in Angela's Ashes. Best of all, strangers approach him on the street to thank him. "I don't mind," he says. "I've often felt that way about writers; I've always been too shy to say anything."

So far, the only cloud on McCourt's horizon has come, predictably, from Limerick itself, where some citizens have objected to his portrayal of their city. When McCourt went there in October to accept an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick, there were fears that protesters would disrupt the ceremony. But the naysayer never came out. The sun, however, did.