Cherry , by Mary Karr. Viking, 276 pages, $24.95.
Should the making of memoirs be the aim of our existence, or an accident that happens when talent and an unusual story coincide?
Maybe it’s unfair to blame memoir madness on Mary Karr, even though the jacket copy of her new book boasts precisely that The Liars’ Club (1995), her best-selling account of an East Texas childhood, sparked a renaissance in the genre. It’s not her fault that next to none of the eager autobiographers who followed her lead could write even half as well as she does. But her new book, Cherry , is a sequel–it’s just waiting in line to become a best-selling account of East Texas adolescence–and that expectant, me-too posture calls to mind all the tedious confessions of the last five years, all those look-alike egos printed, bound and blurbed, insisting with a bristle of I ‘s on their own one-of-a-kind identity.
The ego in The Liars’ Club belonged to 7-year-old Mary Marlene Karr (a.k.a. Pokey), but the memoirist nudged other characters into the spotlight, in particular Daddy, the hard-drinking, hard-punching oil refinery worker with the “sharp cheekbones and hawk’s-beak nose”; and Mother, the artist, also hard-drinking, eccentric verging on loony, sloppy and seductive like the pungent fragrance that clings to her, “the smoke and the Shalimar and the vodka smell.” Pokey’s alky parents are exotic, vivid and memorable. They fight like banshees. Their native idiom is Texas sass, a spicy lingo made from grit, profanity, tall tales and the crude poetry of daily life in a grim place.
And Leechfield, Texas, is plenty grim. Selected by Business Week as “one of the ten ugliest towns on the planet,” it sits in a sweltering coastal swamp, ringed by a noxious industrial zone. It’s “one of the blackest squares on the world cancer map.” Daddy says Leechfield’s “too ugly not to love.”
The best reason for reading The Liars’ Club is the writing. Ms. Karr executes high-low maneuvers worthy of an Olympic acrobat, stooping to collect the meanest vulgarity and hitching it to lofty art. When Daddy takes the family to visit Mother, who has been Sent Away to a mental hospital, a spike of sibling rivalry makes Mary want to “smack [her sister] on the ass of her cut-off Levi’s.” Mary’s next thought (and remember, she’s 7) is that Mother’s hand, raised in farewell, reminds her of “a very white orchid I once had found sprinkled with some powder and mashed between the pages of Hamlet .” Out of these odd, unlikely elements Ms. Karr conjures up a mad Ophelia consigned to a Texas psych ward.
Ms. Karr is up to the same tricks in Cherry . Daddy delivers lines like this: “That girl is ugly… Have to tie a pork chop around her neck to get the dog to play with her.” Leechfield is “duller than a rubber knife.” High and low still mingle promiscuously: “Despite what Nabokov’s Humbert wanted to think, I’ve never met a girl as young as I was then who craved a bona fide boning.”
Some of the writing in Cherry is terrific, especially the passages about drugs (the time frame, roughly, is 1966 to 1973). In high school, young Mary is already experimenting with L.S.D.; here she explains why “ingesting stuff when you’re tripping makes you half nuts”: “[W]ho can figure out how many chews to take and when to swallow? Plus you so vividly picture the musculature of your throat and the secreted digestive acids–the mechanics of eating gross you out …[T]he sandwich stays gripped in hand the whole morning till all the iceberg lettuce and meat and tomato wheels have flopped out to be set upon by ants.” Much later she will discover speed: “…weeks eaten by your brain’s own skitter–drops of water on a hot iron skillet.”
Despite a smattering of vibrant passages, Cherry is a repeat performance: It lacks freshness. Ms. Karr’s solution is to play up the shocking bits, mostly teenage drugs and sex.
The title and the sexy book jacket (a pair of looming naked legs, deliciously female) advertise the main event–which is naturally anticlimactic, absent orgasm and all. Before we get to the “bona fide boning,” we’re treated to first kisses (“it’s like we’re drinking from each other”) and the first waves of full-fledged erotic desire (“under my hand there’s a fire burning cool as menthol”). Sadly, the sex in Cherry is haunted by the abuse Pokey suffered in The Liars’ Club , two terrifying scenes of violent degradation.
In what looks like a further attempt to freshen things up, Ms. Karr banishes the first-person singular from the last two-thirds of Cherry . Before eighth grade, Mary is an “I”–and then suddenly we see her only in the second-person singular, a “you” afflicted with the universal plague of adolescent self-consciousness. Though the switch makes some psychological sense, it’s really a literary move, announced with a nod to Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales : “Only when you read a story in your eighth-grade English book about a minister who insists on watching the world through a black veil do you realize that a vague exhaust has come to cast a pall over everything you see.” My guess is that Ms. Karr simply got tired of staring at pages covered with the skinny stroke of the memoir’s default pronoun: Mary Marlene is omnipresent in this book, and nearly always center stage; everybody else gets a bit part.
Sex, drugs and snappy stylistic devices can’t hold Cherry together. The Liars’ Club was episodic, a succession of brilliantly lit scenes, but it told a coherent story, complete with secrets revealed and fates met. The scenes in Cherry are mostly murkier (thanks to that “vague exhaust” and various chemical substances) and the cluttered story zigzags aimlessly. In the end, after a freakish acid trip at a sinister roadhouse, a resolution looms, the happy prospect of Mary Karr healing her divided teen identity and becoming her “Same Self”: the girl she was, all grown up.
Worth cheering for, I guess. But there’s something unsatisfactory, almost frustrating, like a vicious circle, about a memoir that mainly maps the road back to an unfractured “I”–as though the point of wholeness were merely to nurture a writerly voice.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.