Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hungry Hill: A Memoir, by Carole O’Malley Gaunt

Hungry Hill: A Memoir, by Carole O’Malley Gaunt. University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.

Carole O’Malley Gaunt is quite obviously Irish, and center stage of her memoir is her alcoholic father. How much more does one need to know to slot it into the genre of memoirs that detail the ills the Irish child suffers at the hands of his or her drunken parent? Think the McCourts, for one. It seems that her publisher and her publicist are aiming at that audience. Here’s the back flap copy they’ve written to entice readers:

“The author recounts her sad and turbulent story with remarkable clarity, humor, and insight, punctuating the narrative with occasional fictional scenes that allow the adult Carole to comment on her teenage experiences and to probe the impact of her mother’s death and her father’s alcoholism.”

Just makes you want to run right out and buy the book, doesn’t it. If you said, no, then you would be missing something, because the deathly prose in Hungry Hill is confined to the jacket copy. O’Malley Gaunt herself is a talented writer whose way with words and faculty for specific details makes this story of her teenage years come alive as only the best of memoirists have the wherewithal to achieve.

I am not Irish and my parents were merely social drinkers, but I grew up in roughly the same era as O’Malley Gaunt details here, and I can tell you: she’s got it down, right to the penny loafers and the headbands. Time and again, she transported me back to that time and that place. Here’s Carole on a double date:

“…Richie leans over, looks at Gordie, and lifts his eyebrows, a signal if I ever saw one. When Gordie puts thirty cents down for their cokes, Kathy pulls out her wallet from her straw bag while I reach into the pocket of my Bermuda shorts for the exact change. Because Gordie and Richie do not fork money up for our sodas, my neck relaxes a little….Out on the street, a blast of hot air hits us as if the July heat had been waiting for a Friday night meltdown. As we walk up the street, Richie and Gordie talk about cars—engines, headlights, and prices, but I can’t tell one car from another and have only just learned what a tailfin is….In the middle of Newbury Street, while talking about the pits in chrome fenders, Gordie reaches for my hand. It’s not as if he’s going to lift my hand with its short fingernails to his lips and kiss it, after all this is Springfield, not Paree. But still I don’t like it.”

I was on that double date, only mine was in Pittsburgh and we had just come from Gammon’ s and what made me uncomfortable was the boys hooting and hollering at a sign in the butcher’s window: Breasts, 79 cents. But the straw bag, the Bermuda shorts, the endless talk about cars and such that we all listened to with such feigned admiration—she’s nailed it.

But if you’re not looking for a trip down memory lane, there are those other reasons to read this book. It has something to do with the fact that her mother died early and her father was a handsome alcoholic and she was the only girl with six brothers. But at heart, Hungry Hill is really a coming of age story. The specifics of her life are less important than watching her make her way through the landmines that are always waiting for young girls growing up. This is not to minimize the impact that her father’s drinking had on her, but really, it is more important to her now, probably. There is about those fictional scenes with the adult Carole and the parental figure who wronged her a Twelve Step patina that rings false with the intense truthfulness of O’Malley Gaunt’s written memories of the time.

Hungry Hill is, despite the jacket copy, not a “sad and turbulent story.” Far from it. It is a counter to the bloated tales we're getting of the good old days of the Sixties and Seventies, stories of the movers and shakers, as it were, by the movers and shakers of today. This, on the other hand, is just a book about a girl in a time and a place; it’s a window into Growing Up Girl then—and I suspect—now as well. And it captures the era far better than all the retrospectives in the glossy weeklies have done.

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