by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library
Cherry: A Memoir
Cherry is the second in Mary Karr’s three-part memoir series. I’ve blogged on this site about part one, The Liar’s Club which is, like this, first-rate. The third, Lit, is in the same class. I haven’t read these in order and I don’t think there’s a need to.
Karr has said she wrote Cherry because no memoirist has taken on the adolescent female in a direct and honest way. I’m not well-versed enough in memoir to make a comment on that statement, but I can say that her intent to make the book honest, unsentimental, and unabashed has been realized. Like The Liar’s Club, Cherry takes place in Leechfield, Texas. This is actually Groves, Texas. Karr apparently wants to savage her town at a distance; this may be the only punch she’s pulled. Leechfield is an ugly, dirty, boring refinery town in southeast Texas near the Arkansas border and the Gulf of Mexico.
Early in the book Karr admits “I instinctively knew the rules of girls’ comportment, but I wasn’t yet resigned to them, for to place my head into that yoke was to part with too much freedom.” Comportment—now there’s a word that’ll take to back to the dour old days. Karr is like Huck in that she lights out for the territory, but unlike him in that she stays at home while she does it. This brings great consternation and scandal to family, friends, school, community, police—you name it. I’m glad she didn’t conform in that it makes for an unmissable account. Defiance equals drama equals high interest. In the house, both Karr parents are alcoholics. Mary, in the classic mode, becomes a de facto parent in order to keep her actual parents on track. This mixture of defiance and assuming great responsibility early on makes the young Karr a contradictory rebel, a nonconforming nonconformist. Similarly, she makes outstanding grades through most of her schooling, but she’s so smart that she’s a threat to her schools, which don’t know what to do with her. Admittedly, the action takes place in the late sixties to mid-seventies, before most schools had any notion of the gifted. Dad is resigned to his refinery job. Mom feels she is better than Leechfield and all this, but can only strike out blindly through drink. Sister Lecia, like Mary, parents her parents through their alcoholic bouts.
The brand names alone bring back the sixties: Prell, Jiffy Pop, English Leather, Wisk, Playtex Cross-Your-Heart. The refinery flames, which summoned a vision of hell in the first memoir, now appear to be “manufactured psychedelic sunsets.” Karr is pleasurably articulate in every sentence. She shows what it feels like to have your first kiss, to move up a grade, to get tight the first time, to worry what in the world your body’s changing into. I’ve circled one word (“aripple”) as inept in this book. It’s the only one. The rest is close to flawless, or flawlessness itself. Karr is almost unerringly right in her writing. She’s not capable of being dull. Other than that one word, pretense, overstatement, easy statements, and anything false are just not here. Karr’s by her own admission a merciless editor, a strict reviser of her own work, and it shows.
If you are a reader and you want to know what it’s like to grow up one, this is your account. If you didn’t fit in as an adolescent, if you saw through the bilge of your society, if you screwed up a lot, if you crashed and burned, then this is for you also. Karr takes it all on: class, sex, race, bigotry, small-mindedness, the parochial idiocy of the South, drugs, poverty, shame, shaming, embarrassment, alienation, poor teachers, worry. It seems as though nothing essential about her female adolescence, or female adolescence, is left out. Now I can better understand the girls I grew up with. And if you’re female, it’ll probably hit home harder still. Not only is Cherry maximally informative, but here, as always, Karr doesn’t forget the pleasure principle. Something of a triumph, this book.
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