'Cherry' On Top

Mary Karr's second memoir is a superb blend of poetry and autobiography.

Cherry, by Mary Karr. Viking, $24.95.

Readers familiar with The Liars' Club, the book many critics credit with single-handedly resurrecting the memoir as a popular form, will welcome back the enchanting voice of Mary Karr. Cheeky, precocious and self-deprecating, Karr begins Cherry where she left off her first memoir, at age 11. The scruffy East Texas oil town Leechville remains unchanged. Mary, however, emerges as an even funnier version of her self, now contemplating the road out.

At the end of elementary school Mary finds herself alone much of the time. Her sister Leica has discovered the wonders of dating guys on the football team. Her daddy is "pulling shift work at the refinery," sleeping or "off on mysterious rounds." Her mother, prone to drinking sprees and suicidal episodes, alternately teaches art to and alienates the women from town. Among her peers Mary learns "the logic of exclusion," that particularly nasty treatment that children give to anyone different, or, as in Mary's case, anyone smart enough to question the tried-and-true-routines of Leechfield.

As other preternaturally wise children have done to salve their wounds, Mary turns to books. She says, "I fell into reading as into a deep well where no voice could reach me." She reads To Kill a Mockingbird three times in one week, but ultimately realizes that "every book has a last page." When she finally succeeds in making a friend, the end result only strengthens Mary's alienation. The friend decides to be a secretary. Mary, whose mother advises her should "want to have a secretary, not be one," fears that the friend will grow up "all limited." But with uncharacteristic wisdom the friend tells Mary, "You can't be different than you are." Hence, Mary's dilemma.

The enmity between Mary and the Leechfield status-quo kids provides great material for laugh-out-loud scenes. This passage, where Karr adopts a second-person perspective as a sign of how "estranged from [her]self" she felt (and, oddly enough, the tactic seems to heighten identification with the protagonist instead of distract from it), describes a typical awkward encounter. Mary, wearing a floor-length robe of black cotton cloth, walks to her friend (another outsider) Meredith's house:

Thus monastically clad and unshod, you walk the tar-sticky roads holding your mother's orange-and-black yoga book. About halfway there, a roaring truck draws up on the rough shoulder holding a whole crowd of bikini-clad girls and boys in cutoffs in back. ... Some girl asks real loud, where's the Halloween party, while everybody else breaks in half laughing. ... The truck roars off, leaving a wake of titters that you halfway believe visible ... to where you stand, eyes welling up.

Friend Meredith greets Mary with a sly "Don't you look all Buddah'd up," as Mary dives into the sofa to hide her face "since crying ruined this morning's Egyptian makeup."

In an interview Karr says she was "ambushed by the truth" when she wrote Cherry, and indeed she seems to spare little of it. Imagine publishing the worst, most private and ridiculous things you did as an adolescent. Karr believes in the adage that whatever doesn't kill you, makes you strong. Luckily, she survives.

The cherry of the title, of course, refers to Karr's own. She describes her first love with the boy named Phil with tenderness and an almost voyeuristic intimacy. Consider this voluptuous passage of innocent love:

Time will never again stretch to the silky lengths it reaches this spring when you and Phil first sit entangled in his car, the odor of narcissus and jasmine and crab apple blossoms blowing through the open windows on black wind. Nor will kisses ever again evolve into such baroque forms, delicate as origami in their folds and bendings. Because the nights themselves don't have sex as an end ... the kisses are themselves an end. And in that they are endless.

Ultimately, this exhilarative state must end. According to the ancient laws, she must give herself up to keep him. And since this is the early '70s, after sex comes drugs and rock and roll. Mary once again gives it her all, and, considering the excesses (which most people would rather forget than describe in detail), miraculously comes out not unscathed, but alive.

Karr, also a poet, possesses a curious gift for autobiography. In an early journal entry she says she will write "half poetry and half autobiography." In Cherry, even more than The Liars' Club, she emphatically achieves her goal.