I don’t think anyone would describe Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his account of growing up poor and starving in Ireland, as funny. Nevertheless, the many tragedies in his story are leavened by glimpses of humor. Near the beginning of his memoir, McCourt sets the scene in the following way:
Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges…
The rain drove us into the church–our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flower and candles.
Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain. (1-2)
We learn that it rains in Limerick, but Limerick is not just wet, it stays wet for eternity. The great sheets of rain drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick (emphasis added). We learned that the rain dampened the city from the Feast of Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. Not only does the detail of the ‘Feast of Circumcision’ sound humorous, but that sentence actually means that it stayed wet from January 1 to December 31. In the next sentence, McCourt takes things up a notch by providing us with a marvelous list of alliteration and onomatopoeia. Again, the details are compelling. We don’t just have a cacophony of coughs, which sounds clichéd, but a cacophony of hacking coughs. Just when you think this can’t possibly get any worse, McCourt tops that sentence with the next one: “It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges.” After a few more sentences (omitted for brevity), we learn that the rain drove everyone into church, it was “our refuge, our strength, our only dry place.” In this sentence, McCourt gives us a list which acts like a garden path sentence. It implies that it’s talking about one thing (the piety of the people of Limerick), when it’s actually talking about something else (their wish to get out of the rain). The next sentence gives us a marvelous image of all those people crowded into church in “great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone,” and this sets us up for the punch line at the end, that Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but “we knew it was only the rain.”
And so the story begins with some humor, to ease the way for the tragedies that follow. I highly recommend this memoir. Five Stars.