The second of Mary Karr's memoirs, Cherry, slips seamlessly into the rhythm and distinctive style of the first. As a girl idling her way through long, toxically boring summer afternoons in Leechfield, Texas, Karr dreamed up an unusual career for herself; "to write one-half poetry and one-half autobiography". She has since done both, and even when she's recounting a dirty joke, she can't help but employ a poet's precise and musical vision. Her first memoir, The Liar's Club, was as searing a chronicle of family life as can be imagined--tough, funny, and crackling with sorrow and wit. Against all odds, its sequel doesn't disappoint. Cherry finds the teenage Mary still marooned in a family whose behaviour ranges from charmingly eccentric to dangerously crazy. (This, for instance, is the Karr version of a note from home: "Lecia Karr's leprosy kicked in, and I had to wrap her limbs in balm and hyssop. Please excuse her".) But here the focus has shifted to Mary herself, furiously engaged in irritating authority at every turn: flouting the dress code, dropping acid, running from the police, falling in love.
First love, you might say, heart sinking in chest: what more can possibly be said about such a subject? Actually, a great deal. To read Cherry is to realise how rare it is to find a teenage girl portrayed on her own terms. As a chronicle of female adolescence with all its longings, fantasies, cruelties and fears, Karr's memoir goes darker and deeper than any book in which the protagonist doesn't end up dead. She turns a savage eye on her own hypocrisies and failings and we like her all the more for them. We even end up fond of Leechfield, easily the toughest, smelliest, nastiest little place ever to appear between the covers of a book--"a town too ugly not to love," her father called it in The Liar's Club. Growing up in such a place is necessarily about getting the hell out but it's also about inventing a new identity with which to make your escape. That's the blessing Karr's wise friend Meredith bestows after a particularly harrowing (and harrowingly funny) acid trip: "I see big adventures for Mary. Big adventures, long roads, great oceans: same self." Cherry is the story of how Karr begins to acquire that self, however fumblingly--a big adventure for Mary, as it is for all of us, and one we never finish as long as we live. Perhaps that's the book's greatest pleasure of all: it hints there's more to come. --Mary Park [via]