Touching a wistful chord in readers

January 23, 1998|By Ann Egerton

FOR more than 70 weeks, a memoir by Frank McCourt, ''Angela's Ashes,'' about growing up desperately poor in Limerick, Ireland, and winner of a 1996 Pulitzer Prize, has been on the New York Times best-seller list.

For the past 28 weeks, ''Cold Mountain,'' a novel by Charles Frazier about a wounded Confederate soldier making his way home from the Civil War and winner of last year's National Book Award for fiction, has been on that list. We are living in the most prosperous times America has known, but are fascinated, as readers anyway, by terrible poverty, hunger and need. It seems that the more we acquire, the more we want to know about want.

Grinding poverty

In ''Angela's Ashes,'' Mr. McCourt describes the deaths of his baby sister and brothers, his mother's near immobility from depression, his father's unemployment and alcoholism and his own resulting childhood of near starvation, of days subsisting on tea and fried bread, of having to live on the second floor of his family's rented house in the winter and spring because the ground floor was flooded then. He describes wearing pieces of rubber tires for shoes. He describes tasting an egg: ''Oh God above, if heaven has a taste it must be an egg with butter and salt.'' He describes licking the grease from a newspaper that contained someone else's fish and chips.

In ''Cold Mountain,'' we follow the deserting soldier Inman's walk home through North Carolina, on the run from the Home Guard and thieves, always hungry, cold and exhausted, and nursing injuries with natural remedies. Ada waits for him on her late father's run-down farm, learning how to sustain herself with life-saving help and instruction from Ruby, perhaps the most helpful character in literature since patient Griselda.

Conspicuous consumption

It seems ironic, indeed, schizophrenic, as we cruise the malls and catalogs for things we don't need, such as a kitchen torch for caramelizing sugar, a jewelry armoire or a $600 cigar cutter, that we are so transfixed by accounts of dire straits.

When, during the Depression, John Steinbeck wrote ''The Grapes of Wrath,'' the wretched life of the Joads was close enough to the real thing for many Americans to be relevant reading. There are still many poor people in the United States, but with government and community safety nets, they're rich and secure compared with the protagonists of ''Angela's Ashes'' and ''Cold Mountain,'' yet those stories are compelling.

The two books are riveting because of the moods they convey. ''Angela's Ashes,'' written in the voices of a child and then adolescent, resonates with humor, understanding and even sympathy toward the parents who are letting him down. ''Cold Mountain'' describes the grinding tedium of the lives of Inman and his girlfriend, but never suggests self-pity or complaint.

No one in his right mind would wish for the poverty and suffering that dominate both stories, but their spirits of self-reliance and generosity touch a wistful chord in the hearts of readers and would make a welcome return to America, in any season. Therein lies a greater hunger than our frantic, disheartening search for bagatelles.

Ann Egerton writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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