Book review: 'Cherry: A Memoir' by Mary Karr

By Wendy Law-Yone
Sunday, October 1, 2000

CHERRY: A Memoir

By Mary Karr

Viking. 276 pp. $24.95

The naturalist Loren Eiseley has a line in one of his essays that may be as sound an explanation for the writing of memoirs as any.

"I have spent a large portion of my life in the shade of a non-existent tree," he writes, referring to a sapling he transplanted in his yard as a small boy. Late in life he returns to find it gone, although "for sixty years that cottonwood had been growing in my mind." From this paradox, and from his observation of brown wasps, field mice, pigeons and a group of homeless people in a railroad station, Eiseley extrapolates an attachment that humans and animals form to nonexistent places, homes that have ceased to exist.

Reading Mary Karr's new memoir brings back this notion of the homing instinct, in part because of a sentence toward the end of the book. The author has just come off a long acid high, and the epiphany she commits to a poster board -- "the single true sentence . . . a formula on par with relativity theory" -- is this: There's no place like home. Self-mocking though it appears to be, the tripping teenager's insight goes both to the heart of this memoir and also, I believe, to the need it fills in memoir-readers these days -- a robust audience attesting to the popularity of the genre.

Noteworthy autobiographies of recent years--Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Mark Doty's Firebird and, not least, Mary Karr's own memoirs--are all as much attempts to locate a lost world, a nonexistent tree, as to invent an historic self.

One of the peculiarities of this imaginative quest called the memoir is that the size of the world being recollected is no measure of its success--as witness both Cherry and The Liar's Club, Karr's bestselling previous memoir. The world in both cases is the pseudonymous Leechfield, a small East Texas town in the vicinity of Galveston. The very smallness of this world ("if there was any place worthy of escape in the seventies, it was Leechfield with its mind-crushing sameness") gives teeth to the particular bite in Karr's scrappy, down-home prose. That, and the fact that the memoirist is also a poet.

Fans of The Liar's Club will be gratified to see much of the same atmospheric ground covered in Cherry. Leechfield is still the crucible, and Karr's parents still loom large. Here again is the artistic, much-married, alcoholic mother who advises her daughter on how to compete: "You just have to be smarter than the ones who are prettier and prettier than the ones who are smarter." Here again is the pugnacious, hard-drinking father, a refinery worker with a certain laissez-faire attitude about family values ("You can do anything you're big enough to do") and a flair for the folksy put-down ("Have to tie a pork chop around a neck to get a dog to play with her," he says of a homely girl). Here again are Leechfield characters like the math teacher who says, "Without math you'll wind up being no more than a common prostitute." Or the jailhouse cop whose dictum about young women is: "Old enough to bleed, old enough to butcher."

And here, intact, is the smart, sassy, wickedly observant voice first met in The Liar's Club, a voice that knows how to tell a story in a crackling vernacular that feels exactly true to its setting. (This despite the fact that Karr has chosen to tell it in the second person singular--a device that manages in her hands to be largely unobtrusive.)

All these strengths notwithstanding, Cherry strikes me as reading more like a novel than a memoir, which isn't necessarily to the memoir's credit, especially when the novel itself is limited by the material. To make the sexual coming-of-age of a pubescent girl the focus of a memoir is a bit of a chore, I imagine, given the coarsened sensibilities of readers and voyeurs alike. Unless of course, there is a suggestion of something unusual about her story. That suggestion comes not only from the title of this memoir but from the subject matter of its predecessor, the widely discussed and much admired The Liar's Club, which involves the author's rape as a young girl of about 7. But even for readers unaware of this fact, I suspect that the disclosures in Cherry, despite the vividness of language, will remain surprisingly ordinary, detailing as they do the usual rites of passage for a talented, spirited girl between the ages of 11 and 16 in a small town: her first pimple, her first crush, her first "sex club," her friendships, teenage romances, experiments with drugs, brushes with the law and so on. As for the passages relating to that commodity alluded to in the title, they are sweet and touching but again unremarkable--even coy in a way I found puzzling. In two separate, almost throw-away sentences, Karr refers to having been raped before, but in such an offhand way that it is bound to leave the knowing reader edgy, and those unfamiliar with The Liar's Club mystified.

Choice of detail accounts for a good portion of a memoir's power--and of its weaknesses likewise. As a person of only average recall, with no supporting journals to consult, I may be unfairly suspicious of photographic memory. But when I read an account of a young girl stealing out at night with her sister in search of their missing mother, I can't help but wonder at the precision with which passages like the following are recalled: "In the window well a few gray moth corpses were crumbling to dust . . . When Lecia hit the ground beside me, she swatted a mosquito on her calf and stared toward the lit window." I wonder, too, about the reproduction of details as coherent as those attending the author's drug-induced hallucinations.

Perhaps with memoirs, as with travel writing and other popular forms of personal narrative, the audience no longer expects details to be strictly true, so long as they entertain and are not strictly untrue. Perhaps, with our ongoing memory loss, individual and collective, we've become nostalgic for detail. Perhaps we turn more and more to other people's memoirs as a way of filling in our own blanks.

Wendy Law-Yone is a Washington writer whose novels include "Irrawaddy Tango."

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