Shivering Eyeballs

Jessica Olin

  • Cherry by Mary Karr
    Picador, 276 pp, £14.00, June 2001, ISBN 0 330 48575 X

‘I am not very successful as a little girl,’ Mary Karr wrote in her diary when she was 11. ‘When I grow up, I will probably be a mess.’ This is how Cherry, the second instalment in her account of her early life, begins. The first, The Liars’ Club, was published in 1995. Now it is the summer before she enters sixth grade; she has no friends, her parents are out at work and her older sister is busy being a blonde goddess. She reads To Kill a Mockingbird three times in one week, imagining herself as the ‘puckish Scout’, and writes earnest, graceless poems in a black leather sketchbook she’s taken from her mother’s garage studio. She also dreams of becoming ‘a hardworking woman with a pure soul. Not just a perfumed woman on the outside’, and plots a career for herself that seems outlandish given her environment but which, unbelievably, she will eventually achieve: ‘to write half poetry and half autobiography’.

The swampy town of Leechfield, Texas, where Karr survived her childhood, sits at its highest point three feet below sea level, surrounded by oil rigs and chemical plants. It was once voted one of the ten ugliest towns ‘on the planet’ by Business Week and served as a manufacturing site for Agent Orange. The summer of 1962, described in The Liars’ Club, produces a particularly bad crop of mosquitoes and the neighbourhood children are plagued by encephalitis, or sleeping sickness, as it was called then. To combat the spread of illness, a truck patrols the streets each evening, pumping DDT behind it in a ‘wet white cloud of poison’. Those children who haven’t yet been cut down by disease follow the truck on their bikes, pedalling as slowly as they can. Thus is born the ‘definitive Leechfield competition’: a ‘slow race’, where the winner comes in last, and ‘got to vomit and faint’.

Suspiciously high cancer rates, polio, hunting accidents and ‘inbreeding galore’ produce a population ‘so maimed and mutilated, bucktoothed and listing’ that insults often seem the only appropriate form of communication: ‘Becky, you were ugly enough yesterday without wearing that hat.’ In Leechfield, illnesses and deformities are commonplace, but ‘social wrongness’ – any deviation from the norm – can brand a person as not just freakish, but dangerous. Even as a child, Mary recognises that her family are Not Right. A great deal of this wrongness can be attributed to her mother, Charlie, the only local woman who spends her days reading Existentialist philosophy and painting in her garage.

In some circles, Charlie Karr would be called a loose cannon; in Leechfield, she is described as Nervous. At the sound of her voice, Mary’s friends ‘all startled a little the way a herd of antelope on one of those African documentaries will lift their heads from the water hole at the first scent of a lion’. Her presence in Leechfield is accidental: her car broke down at a particularly bad point in an early marriage. As a young woman in the 1940s she went to art school, modelling nude for life drawing classes, and she tells her daughters racy stories from her days in Greenwich Village, when she smoked pot and went to jazz clubs. Under stress or the effects of alcohol – she drinks vodka almost continuously – she develops a clipped ‘Yankee accent’ and is prone to crying jags. Mary and her sister Lecia learn early to read their mother’s moods, as they are often swept along in her crises.

Mary’s father, by contrast, manages to overcome the handicap of his natural good looks to embody all that’s normal in Leechfield. A union worker at Gulf Oil, Pete Karr is an ‘able picket-line brawler’ who sneaks out to his truck at night to drink whiskey and talk to his cat. And he is a world-class liar; his group of buddies gives The Liars’ Club its name. As a child, Mary idolises her father, who provides the emotional stability her mother lacks but gets into bar fights often enough to remain a romantic outlaw in the eyes of his youngest daughter.

Charlie and Pete, or Daddy, as he is usually called, loom large in The Liars’ Club. With their stormy break-ups and constant boozing, they are the stars of the Karr family soap opera. By the time Cherry begins, however, Mary and Lecia are old enough for the rest of the world to start to matter: friends, teachers and boys have taken on greater importance, although their mother’s suicide threats and disappearances still cause the girls to rally. When Lecia is 13, her new shapely form allows her to break free of ‘the family and its unspoken stigmas’. Soon she is busy dating ‘a variety of football stars’ and regards her sister’s often weird behaviour as a social handicap. Mary herself seems to slide into a pre-adolescent torpor. In addition to reading one book after another, she is briefly gripped by religious fervour and prays for a best friend. But most of the time, she waits:

The house held me in a kind of misty nether-time. The air conditioner hummed. The refrigerator kicked on and lapsed off. I waited a lot, though for what I don’t know. Nothing whatsoever seemed to be approaching from any direction. I wait like an ox, Franz Kafka wrote and Mother underlined in one of her college books. The sentence was copied down like an axiom into one of the dozen or so Big Chief tablets I bought that summer, then let stay blank after a few scribbled pages.

It is during this summer that Mary hones her long-held crush on the lovely John Cleary, a boy so golden that his kindness seems like incredible generosity. Watching him get a haircut at the barbershop, Mary feels her ‘awe must have been palpable’. Her feelings for John are hardly sexual; in her fantasies, she imagines him bringing her a corsage, or taking her hand for couples’ skate at the roller rink. But she is conscious of wanting him to notice her, and her desire prompts ‘a painful new vigilance toward myself’: she knows that to capture his attention, she must ‘change into one of those junior high girls who could make him go quiet as Lecia could do’.

The first even reasonable candidate for the position of best friend is Clarice Fontenot, a wild girl three years older than Mary. Her reputation in the neighbourhood was secured when as a child she shinned up the goalpost on a football field and exposed herself, reducing the other children to near hysteria. Now 14, she can belch on command, wolf-whistle, and make her eyeballs shiver ‘like a mesmerist’. To impress a group of boys, Clarice and Mary invent a ‘sex club’: ‘It’s all broken up by grade,’ Clarice explains. They create a set of rules and sneak into Mary’s mother’s studio to take turns kissing. When it is Mary’s turn to kiss John, she feels ‘such a surge inside me’ that her breath seizes up: ‘And there over his breast pocket, a small embroidered seahorse dips its head down and coils its tail inward till it’s a perfect figure for how shy I suddenly feel. Through the shirt cotton is John’s own strong heart.’ It is a magical moment, but Mary’s father, coming out to drink in his truck, suddenly changes them back into a pack of kids:

Then the crunch of foot on gravel sets us all in a panic. Everybody rears back from kissing and starts mouthing stuff I can’t make out. Clarice has her knees squinched together like she has to pee. She flaps her hands like a bird fighting its way out of a nosedive. Davie Ray Hawks sneaks over to the curtain and looks out a sliver. When he wheels around in the moonlight, his face is bug-eyed, his hands held out wide in an expression copied from Frankenstein.

By eighth grade, Mary’s thinking is ‘muddy’, her limbs heavy. Clarice, her family and even John Cleary have become distant, vague figures. She comes completely undone at the ‘simplest letdown’; failing to win a minor athletics prize leaves her in tears. When, in her first year of high school, she wins a journalism prize, runs track and lands a coveted spot on the cliquish drill team, she finds these victories have come too late, and can’t enjoy them. Her inner voice has become a ‘snide falsetto’ to shield her from disappointment. She longs for a soul mate, imagining that ‘a boy riding to the dance might also be pretending that he was being ferried over snowy fields in a Russian sledge. Or perhaps in another truck cab, a girl your age was rethumbing Catcher in the Rye.’ When she meets Meredith, a new girl who’s just as smart as she is – and possibly smarter – Mary knows she’s found one. On the Drama Club bus, surrounded by chanting, foot-stomping classmates, Meredith sits ‘serene in back, her great, leonine head of curls tilted above Dostoevsky’s Idiot’.

Mary is shocked at Meredith’s self-assurance, since after all she is ‘somewhat chubby and very oddly dressed’, but quickly warms to her sophisticated literary knowledge and all-round brilliance. They form a friendship ‘based almost entirely on indolence, a monastic passion for doing virtually nothing’, spending whole afternoons reading, making up names for their autobiographies, and generally idling: ‘What we need’s a fainting couch . . . Something in red velvet.’ ‘I also wouldn’t mind a barge, like Cleopatra. I could really go for a barge, with some Nubian slave boys to fan me with palm fronds.’ They never try to stage any of the ‘static theatrical tableaux’ they discuss, preferring to ‘luxuriate in possibility’. With Meredith, Mary is her most curious, imaginative, goofy self, and their friendship is a welcome relief from her overwhelming self-consciousness. Unfortunately, a whole new stage is about to begin, and with the arrival of sex, drugs and rock and roll, Meredith is forgotten.

It is a truism that drug stories all sound the same. When Karr, now 16, talks about ‘tripping your brains out’, ‘crashing hard’ and waiting till the ‘rush kicks in’, her voice could be anybody’s. It is almost an overnight transformation: one minute she is taking her first toke, the next she is ‘a whole new creature’ who has stopped shaving her legs and armpits, lost her virginity, and become a permanent fixture in the group of surfer guys who hang out at the beach. Before long, she can ‘clean bricks of pot or peyote buttons, roll a joint while driving, drive while tripping, and talk down the average acid-raging screamer’. Her stories seem less specific, a fact exacerbated by her sudden and inexplicable shift into the second person – ‘you’re so bored and stalled and lonely, you would have gone anywhere to escape . . . the cramped parameters of your own skull.’

At the same time, she is testing her newfound power over boys. But while she finally knows how to get their attention, she doesn’t know how to express her own desires. She becomes annoyingly passive, perfecting her ‘disaffected, I’m-with-the-band pose’ for a particularly corny specimen known as Little Hendrix. Late adolescence makes for the least satisfying part of Cherry, and, unfortunately, we do not get to see how she emerges from what can only be called ‘a phase’: the book ends with a long, nightmarish description of a bad acid trip at a black go-go joint. During this last sprawling third of the book, one begins to wonder about the effects, as well as the purpose, of such an intensive exploration of one’s past. In The Liars’ Club, Karr was not merely telling stories about herself as a child: she was exorcising some serious demons. There are two memorable incidents of sexual abuse, and at one point Mary’s mother almost murders her children. Because these events are so unexpected and so commendably underwritten, their violence is stomach-turning. The Liars’ Club is less a collection of reminiscences than a tightly wound mystery: the final confrontation between Karr and her mother over margaritas provides both an explanation and catharsis.

Cherry, by contrast, is full of signs and portents. Karr hints continually at the coming catastrophe: ‘Nobody tries to stop you. Maybe no one could.’ But she never delivers: the book tails off, rather than coming full circle or making a point. To take Mary from 11 to 16, as Karr does in the first two-thirds of Cherry, is a huge task, and she does it brilliantly. But then she gets lost in her own fable, and seems to sacrifice her considerable wit to the purpose of creating a romantic image of herself as a hippie wild child.