Miss Bonnie suggests: ANGELA'S ASHES By Frank McCour


know when Dad does the bad thing,'' Frank McCourt writes of his father in this remarkable new memoir. ''I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O'Connell's shop but I don't want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I'm up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep? He lights the fire and makes the tea and sings to himself or reads the paper to me in a whisper that won't wake up the rest of the family.''

Frankie's father tells him stories about great Irish heroes like Cuchulain and makes up stories about their neighbors down the street. He tells Frankie about ''the old days in Ireland when the English wouldn't let the Catholics have schools,'' and he tells him about the world beyond the shores of Ireland where men like Hitler, Mussolini and ''the great Roosevelt'' make history. He bequeaths to Frankie two things: a childhood of awful, bone-chilling poverty and illness, and a magical gift for storytelling.

Frank McCourt, who taught writing for many years in the New York public school system, waited more than four decades to tell the story of his childhood, and it's been well worth the wait. With ''Angela's Ashes,'' he has used the storytelling gifts he inherited from his father to write a book that redeems the pain of his early years with wit and compassion and grace. He has written a book that stands with ''The Liars Club'' by Mary Karr and Andre Aciman's ''Out of Egypt'' as a classic modern memoir.

There is not a trace of bitterness or resentment in ''Angela's Ashes,'' though there is plenty a less generous writer might well be judgmental about. Indeed Mr. McCourt's childhood is, as he has said, ''an epic of woe.'' Besides a father who drank away the family's meager food money and a mother who was reduced to begging, there were three siblings who died in infancy from illness. The McCourts were too poor to afford sheets or blankets for their flea-infested bed, too poor to buy new shoes for the children, too poor to get milk for the new baby. A boiled egg was considered a luxury, a bit of discarded apple peel a coveted treat.

Mr. McCourt's parents started out as immigrants in New York, but America hadn't turned out to be the promised land they'd hoped. Not only was the family trying to cope with the Depression, but Malachy McCourt also had a way of taking his sporadic paychecks to the local bar and not returning home. It wasn't long before the family was headed back across the Atlantic to Ireland, where there were relatives who could help out with the four children.

Things, however, were considerably worse in Limerick than they were in Brooklyn. No work for Frankie's Dad, no decent place to live. After a series of moves, the family ends up in a ramshackle apartment that reeks from the public lavatory next door. The downstairs (known as Ireland) is unlivable: flooded in the winter and overrun with rats and flies in the summer; the upstairs (known as Italy) is where the family spends most of its time, burning wood from one of the walls whenever it gets cold. The three months Frankie spends in the hospital with typhoid fever feel like a vacation: a bed with real sheets, a bath with hot water and even books to read.

''The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year's Eve,'' Mr. McCourt writes. ''It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges.''

''From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp,'' he goes on. ''Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whisky.''

During the war, Frankie's father leaves home to take a job at a munitions factory in England, but the paychecks he's supposed to send home never arrive. Frankie starts stealing bread and milk so the family will have something to eat. He dreams of growing up and getting a job so his mother will have money for eggs and toast and jam. He dreams of buying his younger brothers shoes that aren't patched with tire treads and clothes that aren't riddled with holes. He dreams of escaping to America to make a new life.

Writing in prose that's pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we've walked its streets and crawled its pubs. He introduces us to the schoolmasters who terrorized (and occasionally inspired) their pupils, the shopkeepers who extended credit to the poor and the priests who listened to the confessions of young boys preoccupied with sex and sin and shame.

Mr. McCourt's own relatives form a Dickensian gallery of characters. There's his hideous Aunt Aggie, who calls him ''scabby eyes'' and predicts he'll ''run off and marry an English tart'' and cover his house ''with pictures of the royal family.'' There's Cousin Laman, who lost his commission with the Royal Navy when his unrequited crush on Jean Harlow drove him to drink and ruin. And there's Frankie's long-suffering mother, Angela, who tries to hold together a family of five on 19 shillings a week.

In the end, of course, Mr. McCourt's memoir is not just the story of his family's struggles, but the story of his own sentimental education: his discovery of poetry and girls, and his efforts to come to terms with God and death and faith. By 11, he's the chief breadwinner for the family. By 15, he's lost his first girlfriend to tuberculosis. By 19, he's saved enough money to make his escape to the States. The reader of this stunning memoir can only hope that Mr. McCourt will set down the story of his subsequent adventures in America in another book. ''Angela's Ashes'' is so good it deserves a sequel.