Frank McCourt, yer a grand writer, and sure

I’m an unapologetic hedonist. I LOOOVE fast food and being lazy and trashy novels and comedic, childish movies that have no redeeming social value. I tend to avoid anything of substance, whether it’s books or movies or healthy food.

There. I said it.

But every now and then I get all perversely noble and feel like I should increase the fiber in my diet and try to be a better person. A deeper person, psychologically speaking. Part of that aberrance is a desire to read “the classics”–or at least, to read some of the writers that other people rave about.

So recently I went to the local lending library and borrowed “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt’s memoir of growing up in Limerick in grinding poverty, and “‘Tis,” his story of immigrating back to his birth city, New York, and his struggle to become a teacher there and find his place in his world. Many reviewers praise McCourt’s storytelling, saying that he managed to show the difficulties of living through unimaginable indigence while spicing stories of his childhood with humor and caring.

I’m not disputing that McCourt is a wonderful storyteller. His writing is riveting.  I just didn’t see the humor that so many others note offsets the troughs of despair. I tried hard to find it, honest–and failed. Is there something wrong with me?

Maybe I failed to see the sunbeams in “Angela’s Ashes” and “‘Tis” because I’m essentially a melancholy person. I’ve tried for most of my life to emphasize the positive, the happy, the funny elements in my everyday life. A friend commented once that I was the most positive person she knew, and that I could find the silver lining in the foulest garbage bag. What she doesn’t know is that this is a constant struggle for me, that it’s a perversion of my “I’m only happy when it rains” mindset. Inside my head, the sky is always cloudy–it’s either just stopped metaphorically raining or is about to start another downpour. ‘Better keep the windows shut and get the dogs back inside,’ is my grim everyday mindset, which I try to keep to myself.

So maybe I identified with the non-stop strife of McCourt’s childhood. I just couldn’t stop reading these books until the last page had been turned. I read compulsively until I couldn’t focus on the print anymore, which is what happens while I’m reading Diana Gabaldon.  Unlike Diana Gabaldon’s work, I wasn’t enjoying it.  While I was plowing my way through McCourt’s two books, I couldn’t muster up the strength to do anything else, I was that morose.

No, I don’t live in a wood-stove-heated hovel in Ireland, begging clothes and bedding from the Salvation Army.  I’ve never batttled communicable illness borne by the rainy season flooding our kitchen and an outdoor toilet shared by the entire neighborhood, and I’ve never had to worry about what we’d eat for breakfast, dinner or snacks. I’m sitting in a warm, dry, cozy home in Knoxville heated with a gas furnace and supplied with running water and not just one, but THREE toilets to call our very own.

I have felt that ominous shadow of “Oh, Jaysus, what in the name of the Blessed Virgin could possibly happen to us next? Will we ever have a moment of peace to call our own, for the comfort that’s in it, at all, at all?” But it’s been nothing like what McCourt and his family and others like them endured during his childhood years.

So what the hell IS my problem? Dunno. Guess my empathetic funk was a tribute to McCourt’s power as a storyteller. He compels his reader to stay with him, even as we tear up watching his mother suffer from emphysema and contemplate the maddening discomfort of sharing a flea-infested bed with three siblings.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to mesmerize readers with my storytelling. But for my own psychological well-being I should probably avoid writing about real life and stick to happy tales of lottery winnings and reunited best friends and lollipops and rainbows.

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