Let’s analyze Frank McCourt’s voice and see how he creates it. In this typical passage from Angela’s Ashes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999) 249-250, Frank and his brother Malachy take their infant brother Alphie for a walk in his baby carriage:
“We play games with Alphie and the pram. I stand at the top of Barrack Hill and Malachy is at the bottom. When I give the pram a push down the hill Malachy is supposed to stop it but he’s looking at a pal on roller skates and it speeds by him across the street and through the doors of Leniston’s pub where men are having a peaceful pint and not expecting a pram with a dirty-faced child saying Goo goo goo goo. The barman shouts this is a disgrace, there must be a law against this class of behavior, babies roaring through the door in bockety prams, he’ll call the guards on us, and Alphie waves at him and smiles and he says, all right, all right, the child can have a sweet and a lemonade, the brothers can have lemonade too, that raggedy pair, and God above, ‘tis a hard world, the minute you think you’re getting ahead a pram comes crashing through the door and you’re dishing out sweets and lemonade right and left, the two of ye take that child and go home to yeer mother.”
How would we describe the personality speaking to us here?
He’s remembering something that happened decades ago, and impersonating himself then. He comes off as a bemused outlaw, an almost-innocent criminal, knowingly committing a reckless, silly, dangerous, potentially tragic act. He shows no sense of remorse, then or now, and thoroughly enjoys the retelling. He’s enthusiastic in the boyish act. Neither child apologizes to the barman, and neither appears in the second half of the anecdote. Yet he’s clearly sympathetic with the barman and his rant. And this speaker has a good ear for common speech. He’s a fabulously clear storyteller.
What devices produce this personality, this voice?
McCourt sets up the scene and the action with firm geography and expectations about what each character will do, then shoves the pram off. The sense of pellmell action results from a lack of punctuation for the rest of the sentence, and the contrast of chaos and normality. The speeding pram interrupts the men drinking “a peaceful pint,” and stops with the baby saying “Goo goo goo goo.”
The second half of the paragraph is all one sentence of the barman’s reaction, again speeded along with little punctuation. His speech alternates direct and indirect quoting without quotation marks. He speaks a little bit of dialect and slang: “bockety,” “ye,” “yeer.” (The secret of dialect and slang is to use very little.)
The whole paragraph races along with strong action verbs, lots of repetition, and mostly short, ordinary words. McCourt tells the anecdote entirely in the present tense, giving it immediacy; you, the reader, are right there.
Now go back and read the selection aloud. Don’t you agree that this is an attractive voice, a storyteller you want to listen to, even as he tells you the most appalling things?
[What’s your reaction to McCourt’s voice?]