Mary Karr Reviewed

Mary Karr Reviewed


by Mary Karr

Viking, 276 pp., $24.95

Home, in the twentieth century, is less where your heart is, than where you understand the sons-of-bitches. Especially in Texas, where it is the vitality of the sons-of-bitches which makes everything possible.

-- Dave Hickey

Before the Me Decades of the 1980s and Nineties, autobiographies were mostly the domain of the already famous or at least of well-known public figures. The usual sort of published reminescences were written by (or for) retired politicians, older movie stars rehashing dated gossip, and late-in-their-career literary figures. You know the sort of thing: Robert McNamara explaining how his role in managing the Vietnam War was tragic but inevitable, Ava Gardner dishing a bit about Mickey Rooney, or Ernest Hemingway sizing up Scott Fitzgerald's manhood as they stood side by side at a Parisian pissoir. Frank Conroy's Stop Time (1967) changed all that forever. A personal memoir by a noncelebrity, written in the voice of a boy growing up, Stop Time caused a literary sensation, and decades later made possible such bestsellers as Mary Karr's The Liars' Club and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes.

The Liars' Club was the bestselling Texas book of the Nineties, a tell-all childhood reminiscence about growing up in the psuedonymous community of Leechfield, someplace close to Port Arthur. Now Karr brings us Cherry, which turns out to be a bland and muddled sequel in spite of its titillating title. The earlier book was a riveting, tightly written account of a scarifying childhood spent in thrall to a bright, dangerously screwed-up mother, an affectionate refinery worker father who was the local king of the barroom brawl, and an older sister who was a master of the sarcastic put-down. Not only did the earlier book appear to be perfectly self-contained (and therefore not in need of an update), but the first thought when presented with another installment is to question how more theatrical weirdness could have happened to the Karrs that would warrant yet another harrowing report. So there is a peculiar combination of relief and disappointment when in Cherry you learn that everyone who was alive at the end of the first memoir is still around and that the new book pretty much just deals with teenage Mary and her hormones.

The Liars' Club, with its deep red book jacket featuring a moody Dorthea Lange photograph on the front, hit the bestseller list for a long stretch and, at least in this part of the country, enjoyed a tremendous word-of-mouth buzz. Vying with Karr's book as a bestseller in 1995 was John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil -- both became nonfiction icons of the 1990s. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a New York visitor's account of the gothic high life in Savannah, but in The Liars' Club, the gothic was deep-down and personal.

Karr's surprise bestseller garnered sensational reviews from coast to coast, but the Texas reaction to The Liars' Club was a bit complicated, perhaps the way it always is at home. Down here there were four basic reactions: First, surprise, shared by the rest of the country, that a writer who hailed from such an apparently deprived part of the Golden Triangle could string together a narrative of such power. Molly Ivins said it was "like finding Beethoven in Hoboken." Second, a kind of perverse pride that although the pungent details of redneck life might confirm less-than-flattering stereotypes of Texas, at least it was popular. Third, a widespread skepticism about the truth of the narrative, reinforced by the book's title and other internal hints. And lastly, a kind of sour grapes reaction that might be summarized as: "Well, I'm from Port Arthur, too, and those little stories in that book don't even begin to tell it right. I've got some that would just curl your hair."

For many readers the lasting image of The Liars' Club was young Mary as a tough tomboy with a smart mouth. Touring with the book in Austin, Karr (more than once) read a scene that embodies this persona. The passage is the one that presents her childhood self hiding in a tree holding a BB gun where she is finally spotted by a neighbor man across the fence. After the man makes her out in the dark in the tree and accosts her, Mary shouts out, "Eat me raw, Mister." Although the author maintains that the child delivered this line innocent of its sexual content, the line's comic jolt both created a laugh but also left you wondering about what led this wild little girl into the tree in the first place.

Cherry commences with a prologue that chronologically would fall at the book's end -- it is the scene where Mary, now a tough older teenager, takes off for California with a group of her surfer pothead friends. The first paragraph announces that Karr has not lost her eagerness to shock:

No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars -- bills you've saved and scrounged for, worked to all-night switchboard for, missed the Rolling Stones for, sold fragrant pot with smashed flowers going brown inside twist-tie plastic baggies for. In fact, to disembark from your origins, you've done everything you can think to scrounge money save selling your spanking young pussy.

The jaded tone of this opening is actually at odds with what follows, an affecting account of the pangs of leaving home, with the new Karr family set-up: her mother as always encouraging Karr to get out in the world and be more grown-up than she really is, and her father just a ghost of his forceful self. When he sees Mary crying, it appears that it's news to him that his daughter is about to take off in a truck with a bunch of boys and drugs to drive to southern California. His feeble protest at once makes her feel better. Cherry then picks up on Karr's life where we left off in The Liars' Club.

By the end of elementary school, her family's reputation has begun to take its social toll, and Mary is beginning to be left out of the popular girls' slumber parties. These slights are reinforced by her sister Lecia's breasts -- or rather reinforced by Mary's flat-chestedness compared to Lecia's 36-Cs, attributes that gain the older sister dates with football stars when still in junior high. Never one to suffer in silence (or wait for nature to take its course), Karr takes the next step:

Did mother think I was too old to go outside without a shirt? She didn't.

... Asking mother was a formality, for she seldom saw much reason not to do anything you thought up.

That's how at age eleven I came to peel off my T-shirt, mount my pink-striped Schwinn, and set off down the oyster shell of Taylor Avenue wearing only red shorts.

By the time I reached the first porch where a line of ladies in their rockers were sipping iced tea, it was clear I'd made a terrible mistake. Their eyes widened, and their heads turned rigidly to one another and back at me as if on poles. After I rounded the corner, I felt their stares slide off my back. A different kid would have gone hauling butt back to her garage. She would have stayed inside till some car wreck or church supper had drawn the talk from her escapade. But I was not bred to reversals. I only had to make it one loop around the block to finish.

... I felt the shining whiteness of my chest, wholly untouched by the sun since I was three or four -- so different from the sleek, tanned chests of the boys. It blared out my mistake in pale flesh.

The first two sections of Cherry are narrated in the first person and in many ways read like a continuation of The Liars' Club. Most of the crazy intensity is gone, as both parents fade out (Karr's mother still disappears overnight from time to time and her father now stashes his liquor bottles in the garage). Mary attaches herself to school friends, who, while they aren't the popular crowd, at least provide her the normal female friends to speculate about sex with (Clarice) and the golden hunky neighbor boy (John Cleary) to obsess over. Like in the earlier book, most of the good lines are sister Lecia's, to all appearances a hardier survivor than the author. Labeled as a straight proto-Republican/virgin in both books, Lecia's advice to Mary after a breakup is nevertheless: "Remember the pussy goes with you." Over half of the rest of Cherry is narrated in the second person, a change that does indeed work to personalize Karr's experiences. The best new character in the book is Meredith, a friend introduced about the time of the birth control pills (her mother insists) and just before the drugs. The depiction of Meredith contains the book's best writing -- it has the ring of real truth. Meredith is Mary's intellectual and spiritual companion, a rounded presence to her flatness.

The summer you and Meredith reread Franny and Zooey together, you evolve in a mystical direction, combing libraries and religious bookstores all over the county for a copy of the medieval Christian tome called The Pilgrim's Way. It describes the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me") that Franny chants mantralike during her unbelievably attractive nervous breakdown, the repetition being meant to burn the prayer into your very breath and heartbeat resulting in all kinds of tranquility and saintliness. ... You aim to achieve Nirvana itself. Hopefully before school starts.

Mary and Meredith form an association that might be called Leechfield Girls Who Have Suffered, a partnership that stays tight until boyfriends materialize. It comes as something of a shock to be reminded that we are, after all, still back in the late Sixties, when small town girls' friendships fall by the wayside instantly when one of them begins "seeing" a boy. Given all of Karr's "pussys" and "dicks," it comes as major relief that the descriptions are vague once she actually starts to Do It. Much more intimate is the earlier scene in which Karr finally kisses the boy of her dreams, John Cleary.

But once the sex and surfing begin, Cherry becomes just another paean to being ripped on psilosybin while dancing on the beach (if you call Bolivar a beach). From a conventional high school setting that might be summarized as Beatnik Poets v. the Square Principal, the scene quickly becomes experimental and dangerous. Karr provides very little transition from her worst trouble getting called into the school office to her running with a quasi-outlaw group that dabbled in psychedelics and heroin (Karr only tried this one once). The stoned-out friends sound like they were recruited from Central Casting (with names like Little Hendrix) but Karr's acid trip to Beaumont's lowest down black club mixes a hilarity (Mary sings "We Shall Overcome" to herself) and a horror that is a hallmark of the earlier book.

In the scene where she lands in jail, Karr tries mightily to separate herself from her friends, losers in the eyes of the backwoods cops. Wouldn't you know that one last time, it's Mother to the rescue. Mary's elation at getting family reinforcements quickly turns into resentment, as the cop in charge remembers Mother from decades past, and their middle-aged flirtation that provides the lubrication to get her out becomes a final humiliation. The reader is well aware that in Karr's mind she has moved beyond the faded power of her mother, yet it is her dramatic return that brings back the energy that marked The Liars' Club. -- Dick Holland

Dick Holland teaches a course at UT titled "The Texas State of Mind."
  • More of the Story

  • The Queen of Truth

    With two beautifully crafted memoirs under her belt, a third book of poetry out, tenure at Syracuse University, a teenage son, and a blissful romance, Mary Karr is definitely hardworking and real. And if her soul isn't entirely pure, well, readers of Cherry will be grateful it isn't.

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