I am on record as saying I don't care much for stories of static, hopeless suffering. I didn't have to know much about this book to be pretty sure it was one of those, and I have recently learned that it is in fact honored as a classic of misery literature. I would never have read it if someone hadn't given me a copy, and I almost gave it up at the second paragraph, where the author makes things clear:
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
The book (which is memoir, not fiction, in case you have somehow not heard of it) fully lives up to that promise, or threat. I think I read the first few chapters at a rate of four or five pages a week, and would surely have given it up entirely had I not felt some obligation--to the person who gave it to me, that I should give her my opinion based on a full reading, and to the author, that I should give him a chance to overcome my prejudice.
It never really did. It is very well written and very vivid, and it certainly succeeds in its effort to make the reader grasp just how miserable that childhood was. In brief: the family was poor to start with, and the father was a drunkard who spent what little money he came by on that vocation. And their relations are cold, mean, spiteful people who may help them when actual starvation threatens, but not necessarily, and not without insult. The whole of Ireland, in fact, or at least Limerick, appears here as a cold, mean, spiteful place; on the basis of this book you would conclude that it is a hellhole, pure and simple. And with one or two exceptions all representatives of the Catholic Church are cold, mean, and spiteful. One of those exceptions is responsible for one of the few bright moments in the book, the brightest in fact, and it almost makes the rest seem worthwhile. But mostly it's one terrible thing after another, a chronicle of misery, death, and dashed hopes until the last few pages, in which the author escapes.
It deserves its literary reputation. But it's not my cup of weak, cold, bitter tea.
Update: I've been very busy, and wrote the above in about twenty minutes late last night. I remembered today something that struck me often while I was reading the book, and that I'd meant to remark on: McCourt reproduces in detail long conversations among adults heard when he was a child, I think as young as three or four. I suppose this is possible, but it struck me as implausible, and made me wonder about the extent to which fiction might be mixed in with memory. That in turn suggests the possibility that some of the people who were made to look pretty bad may not have been quite so bad as that.