Malachy McCourt Sr. flees Northern Ireland with a price on his head, supposedly for work with the IRA, shows up in America, impregnates Angela Sheehan and has to marry her. Cut to three years later, Frank gets off a see saw quickly, which makes his brother fall off and cut his lip. Frank is sent home where he sees a dog has been run over in the street and died. His brother and dog’s blood looks the same, causing him to fear he’s killed his brother.
Why we might find Frank hard to identify with: He says in the third paragraph: “People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.” So here he’s confronting the book’s big problem: His is a rather familiar story. The father is a typical Irish drunk father and the mother is a typical Irish long-suffering mother. He’s saying, look, if you want a surprising story, don’t read this. This will be a typical story, albeit especially wretched. The only reason to read this will because it is well-written. It helps a lot that it eventually won the Pulitzer Prize, but those who read it before then just had to do it on word of mouth.
- A fictional story would have the immigrants come to America, burn their ships, and have to survive a trial by fire. We don’t tend to like stories in which heroes retrace their steps. But that means you can do it a memoir and it’ll instantly feel real, because it’s the sort of the thing fiction wouldn’t do.
- McCourt’s an Irish writer, so of course we’re awash in bodily fluids of all types. The “odor of piss” is never far away. We also get lots of odd tastes and sensations. Speaking of the coughs caused by River Shannon, he says “to ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper; for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it, sizzling, on the chest.”
- Whenever their father stumbles home drunk, he wakes the boys and makes them swear to die for Ireland, then sings songs about Irish martyrs. We get song lyrics, which we always like.
- Lots of interesting language and euphemisms: Franks mother and father have a “knee-trembler” which puts her in “an interesting condition.”
- The poverty is crushing. At age five he doesn’t know what a bowl is because his family has never owned one.
- McCourt the fact that his baby sister Margaret will die at some point, but not that her twin brothers will die also die as toddlers. He’s parceling out the misery as much as we can take at a time.
- Shortly after this, he’ll start getting in fights, fighting to defend his own kid logic, like when someone else sings a song that he thinks belongs to his dad.