A woman left her abusive husband in the middle of the night and, taking their 3-year-old son with her, drove through the dark from Ohio to Boston, reaching across the boy to hold the broken handle on the passenger door to make sure he didn't fall out. The scene stuck with me, like many others I heard in workshops I began leading in writing autobiography a decade or so ago. It seemed to me that these true stories, personal slices of American life, conveyed the feel and taste and sense of this society more faithfully and compellingly than the novels I used to count on for such understanding. Current novels continue to seem to me less revealing of "the way we live now" than the best of the memoirs that appear with increasing regularity on bookshelves and even bestseller lists.
The breakthrough contemporary memoir was Mary Karr's The Liars' Club in 1995, accelerating what was already a popular trend and upping the literary stakes of the genre by the poetic precision of its language and the headlong thrust of its narrative. Now she is back with a sequel to her childhood, the adolescent era whose major symbolic (as well as physical/mental/emotional/psychic) event was losing one's virginity. In typical Karr-like celebration of the vernacular, the title, of course, is Cherry.
If her second effort is not as uniquely satisfying as the first, it is not because Karr has lost any of her considerable powers as a prose stylist or suffered from the ancient curse that allegedly plagues any follow-up with mediocrity. The problem--or at least the difference--is simply that The Liars' Club was based not only on the author's experience but on the soap-operatic adventures of her boozing, man-loving, peregrinating mother. Mary's mom not only blessed her with life but also with as colorful a ready-made character as any author-daughter could wish for to star in her first memoir. Like Mary as a child and her sister, Lecia, the reader of The Liars' Club is carried along by their mother's dramatic ups and downs and outs, providing in the process plenty of plot. Agnes Nixon, creator of the longtime favorite soap opera All My Children (as well as nearly the entire ABC lineup of daytime drama) once defined the basic rule of plot as "the heroine must always be in peril," and Mary's mother followed that rule.
Focusing this time on adolescence, Karr is true to the inherent ennui of the teenage years, which means that Cherry is long on mood and short on plot (for one thing, Mom stays put in this era). Karr explains that "no long episodes from that dull time exist.... There are only brief snippets of memory, outtakes, captured instants where your sagging performance becomes plain." Her teenage best friend shares with teenage Mary "a monastic passion for doing virtually nothing." Reflecting on that era of her life the author reports that "a camera trailing you would find neither plot nor action--two girls laze around on sofas at various stages of torpor reading or talking about what they will read or have read or plan to write or make or do in some vaporous future."
True as this is to adolescent life, and as artfully as it is described, torpor is hardly riveting. Nor does the small-town East Texas setting of Leechfield provide much to write from home about, "with its mind-crushing atmosphere of sameness.... Sometimes you even fancied you could hear the traffic light over deserted main street blink. Time lagged mule-like in muddy tracks."
As if to compensate for the lack of action or drama in her story, Karr jazzes things up with a barrage of the sexual slang of time and place. She tells us of boys "talking about how they finger-fucked you and your ying-yang made their hand smell like tuna fish," a "dick hard as a crescent wrench," a girl whose "knockers" are like "headlights," another who "yanks both her pants and undersancies down," and wonders how Wonder Woman "keeps her D-cup boobs from flopping out of the red strapless bra top she's got on," while "your mother holds loudly forth on any and all pussy-related subjects," and you call your sister "Old moose-boobs." Sexual lore is passed on and learned ("After a date, throw your panties against the wall, and if they stick, you had a good time") as well as proposed initiation rites for a teen sex club ("Blindfold Davie Ray Hawks and tell him he's putting his finger up somebody's butt, but really it's just wet bread wadded up in a soup can"). As Karr puts it, "I had a lot of double-dog fuck-you in me by then."
As well as employing a blitz of teen sex slang, Karr sometimes slips into a kind of collegiate cuteness as she looks back at her adolescent self: "The stoicism I favored was less in the mode of Marcus Aurelius and more reminiscent of the donkey Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh."
But just as she seems to be bogging down in the mire of teenage torpor, dutifully slogging on to close out this era of her experience, Karr taps into a real narrative that gathers speed and carries us breathless to the end. It happens when
one legendary night you travel to Effie's Go-Go, a black juke joint in the bowels of Beaumont behind the shipyards where no underage girl of any color should be granted admission. You drive there flaming so luminously on orange sunshine that dark trees on the roadside seem to rear back to let you pass, and your bare arms and hands glow in the car's hull like fine marble.
Karr returns from what seems a near-death acid trip with the hallucinated illusion that she has found the meaning of life, reduced to one sentence, only to realize it's the kind of commonplace Grandma might have stitched on a pillow. After sharing her revelation with her best friend, adolescent Mary comes down from her illusory nirvana, and Karr the writer looks back to see that what's unalterable as bronze, though, is the image of your radiant friend that morning barefoot on the porch with sun in her rampant hair. She's holding out that bowl of Froot Loops and touching your shoulder as if to bestow the right name upon you, the one you'll bear before you through the world, each letter forged into a gleaming shield.