I have mixed feelings about this book and having just finished it yesterday. I am not sure if I am ready to write about it. I had expectations from this book. I expected it to be the story of the American dream, like in the movies – the hero will rise above himself to be a bigger and better person. I was obviously mistaken. This is about real life and real life is not the like the movies.
‘Tis begins where ‘Angela’s Ashes’ left off – Frank in New York. The book’s start is extremely funny and you notice the contrast with Angela’s Ashes instantly. This book is brighter.
Frank McCourt goes thru similar struggles like any Irish migrant of that time – cheap boarding lodges, menial jobs, ridicule, being a draftee in Germany post war and being in perpetual danger of caving into the curse of the Irish drink! I think this is where I was disappointed – having read Angela’s Ashes – my perception of Frank was that of a person wise beyond his years, extremely intuitive, someone who clearly can distinguish between what is and what should be. You wonder why someone like him would waste his years hauling off cargo at warehouses and drinking at pubs.
Before you give up on him, Frank redeems himself, and decides to get himself a college education so that he can become a teacher. Meanwhile Frank’s brothers move to New York and acquire fame and name as bartenders and radio hosts. His decision to be a teacher is puzzling, especially, when he can make more money and have a better life if he joins his brothers in business. It’s very hard to make him out as a teacher. Does he like his job? Why is he doing it? Does he even enjoy teaching? At times you can almost sense resentment in his teaching.
What I found most insightful were his experiences in teaching. His first experience at teaching in a vocational school in New York where nobody expected to learn anything and everyone just wanted to get passing grades. His next major experience is at an adult evening class, where, education meant a passport to a respectable life. He then talks about his experience at the elitest Stuyvesant school where education meant getting the right grades to get into Ivy League.
Another interesting aspect is how thru Frank’s eyes we see the culture evolution in America pre and post the wars. The value system is evolving. During the world wars the parents were the patriots – they believed in fighting the Japs/Germans. The kids grew up in the post war boom , they cared just about themselves – the drinks, the fags and the sex. Then the generation that was sent to Vietnam war – reluctant draftees , free love believer , hippies , fighting for all causes.
The father that we believed had left for ever reappears in the book and you can almost feel the depth of the pain that he inflicted on his children. The behavior is almost paradoxical – there are no grudges but there is no forgiveness either.
‘Tis a success story after all’ – The New York Times Book review verdict on the book. I am not sure I entirely agree because I don’t know if that was a successful life. But I am sure it’s better than a lot.
Verdict: Must read if you have read ‘Angela’s Ashes’