(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

In Cherry, the sequel to her extremely successful memoir The Liar’s Club (1995), Mary Karr beautifully re-creates the emotionally charged atmosphere of adolescence. Complete with crushes, first kisses, social humiliation, and even sex, drugs, and rock and roll, this memoir captures the essence of growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Karr tackles the too rarely explored world of a young girl’s most private thoughts and feelings with an unusual sensitivity and a poet’s language that allows her to reinhabit, for a time, her teenaged self. Cherry offers enough raw, immediate emotion to transport the reader back (no matter how far) to his or her teenage years.

Cherry resumes Mary’s story at age eleven and ends when she graduates from high school and prepares to leave her small Texas town. Her mother Charlie is mentally unstable, artistic, and alcoholic. She is given to disappearing for days at a time, leaving her daughters to search for her in the middle of the night. Her hard-working and hard-drinking father fades into the background, burying himself in booze and Dialing for Dollars on television. Mary’s older sister Lecia has developed into a good-looking teenager with a life of her own, so Mary is too often left to fend for herself. Although they are major characters in The Liar’s Club, Charlie and Pete largely fade into the background here as Mary painfully struggles to grow up and build an identity separate from them.

Karr divides her story into five sections—a prologue, followed by “Elementary’s End,” “Midway,” “Limbo,” and “High.” “Elementary’s End” and “Midway” are narrated in the first person, as in The Liar’s Club, but the prologue and the final two sections are written using the second-person (“you”) construction. The use of this construction suggests that the painful years that begin in “Limbo” can be dealt with only at a remove, as if emotions are still too raw for a first-person narrative. This sense of detachment is in tune with the ironic attitude of the teenager, but the technique can be off-putting. The second-person construction conveys a universality that does not always jibe with the specificity of much of Karr’s experience.

Cherry opens with both an ending and a beginning—the ending of a story the reader is about to explore and the beginning of a story not yet told. In the prologue, sixteen-year-old Mary Karr is about to depart for Los Angeles in a blue pick-up truck with a bad fuel pump and questionable brakes, surfboards bolted to the roof concealing a stash of drugs. Accompanied by her pal Doonie and six other “surfer dudes,” she is leaving behind forever the bleak landscape of Leechfield, Texas, for unknown adventure which will, the reader is told, eventually lead to two jail terms and two suicides among her six companions. Mary’s mother, who has spent a lifetime longing to leave Leechfield, is encouraging and more than a bit jealous. Her father, having long ago given up any attempt at wielding authority in the household, forbids her to go but does nothing to stop her. Although at this point the reader is primed for the story of the ill-fated trip to Los Angeles, the reader is instead returned to the fifth-grade Mary to discover how she has reached this point of departure.

Mary’s fifth-grade year brings one of the first harbingers of the rocky adolescence to come: She finds herself left out of her friend Violet Durkey’s sleepover and violates all the rules of preadolescent etiquette by confronting Violet about her exile from the festivities. That summer, isolated from the social whirl, alone in an empty house, she “[falls] into reading as into a deep well where no voice [can] reach.” Her one friend, fourteen-year-old Clarice, the only girl with “outlaw tendencies” to match her own, is seldom relieved from her chores for long by her controlling father. She does, however, manage enough free time to teach Mary to whistle with her fingers, execute a diving-board flip and a cartwheel, and tie a slipknot. That summer before junior high, in one glorious yet excruciating moment of rebellion against the freedoms denied adolescent girls, she throws off her T-shirt, jumps on her pink Schwinn, and “set[s] off down the oyster shell of Taylor Avenue wearing only shorts.” Drawing shocked stares from the neighbors, she briefly experiences one of life’s liberties usually allowed only boys and little children.


(The entire section is 1840 words.)