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Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel

Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel

4.0 17
by Lynda Barry

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On a September night in 1971, a few days after getting busted for dropping two of the 127 hits of acid found in a friend's shoe, a sixteen-year-old who is grounded for a year curls up in the corner of her ratty bedroom, picks up a pen, and begins to write.
Once upon a cruddy time on a cruddy street on the side of a cruddy hill in the cruddiest part of a


On a September night in 1971, a few days after getting busted for dropping two of the 127 hits of acid found in a friend's shoe, a sixteen-year-old who is grounded for a year curls up in the corner of her ratty bedroom, picks up a pen, and begins to write.
Once upon a cruddy time on a cruddy street on the side of a cruddy hill in the cruddiest part of a crudded-out town in a cruddy state, country, world, solar system, universe. The cruddy girl named Roberta was writing the cruddy book of her cruddy life and the name of the book was called Cruddy.
Now the truth can finally be revealed about the mysterious day long ago when the authorities found a child, calmly walking in the boiling desert, covered with blood. She could not give the authorities any information about why she was the only survivor and everyone else was lying around in hacked-up pieces.

Roberta Rohbeson, 1971. Her overblown, drug-induced teenage rant against a world bounded by "the cruddy top bedroom of a cruddy rental house on a very cruddy mud road behind cruddy Black Cat Lumber" soon becomes a detailed account of another story. It is a story about which Roberta has kept silent for five years, until, under the influence of a pale hippie called the Turtle and a drug called Creeper, her tale giddily unspools...
Roberta Rohbeson, 1967. The world of Roberta, age eleven, is terrifyingly unbounded, a one-way cross-country road trip fueled by revenge and by greed, a violent, hallucinatory, sometimes funny, more often horrific year of killings, betrayals, arson, and a sinister set of butcher knives, each with its own name.
Welcome to Cruddy, Lynda Barry's masterful tale of the two intertwined narratives set five years -- an eternity -- apart, which form the backbone of Roberta's life. Cruddy is a wild ride indeed, a fairy tale-cum-low-budget horror movie populated by a cast of characters that will remain vivid in the reader's mind long after the final page: Roberta's father, a dangerous alcoholic and out-of-work meat cutter in search of his swindled inheritance; the frightening owners of the Knocking Hammer Bar and sometime slaughterhouse; and two charming but quite mad escapees from the Barbara V. Herrmann Home for Adolescent Rest. Written with a teenager's eye for freakish detail and a nervous ability to make the most horrible scenes seem hilarious, Roberta's two stories -- part Easy Rider and part bipolar Wizard of Oz -- painfully but inevitably converge in a surprising denouement in a nightmarish Dreamland in the Nevada desert.
By turns terrifying, darkly funny, and resonant with humanity, propelled by all the narrative power of a superior thriller and burnished by the author's pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, Cruddy is a stunning achievement.

Editorial Reviews

Joe Garden
Lynda Barry is best known for her eclectic weekly comic strip Ernie Pook, which mixes mundane, shocking, and bizarre ruminations on growing up with periodic storylines about monster families and poetry-reading poodles. Many themes run through both her strip and her novel: the us-against-them world of childhood and adolescence, the search for identity, and the everyday cruelties people tend to dismiss. Cruddy is told in the first person by Roberta, a 16-year-old whose psyche and features have been eternally scarred by a horrible life with abusive parents and adults who see children as either subjective vessels for gratification or recipients of their anger. Cutting across two narratives, Roberta's story is an engrossing voyage through trash America and the bleak futures native to it. The first narrative recounts the events in Roberta's recent past, a drug-fueled and ill-fated adventure that unites her with a cast of similarly marginalized youths. All these characters are brimming with a desire for escape from their cruddy town, their cruddy peers, and their convoluted and cruddy lives. The second narrative, which takes place five years earlier, recounts an unplanned road trip with her murderous alcoholic father, who searches for three suitcases filled with an inheritance out of which he feels cheated. Both stories are peppered with an assortment of Lynchian human oddities, rendered more freakish through 11-year-old or psychedelic-hazed eyes. Thankfully, Barry has a knack for incorporating and naturalizing these characters: Instead of seeming tacked-on and contrived, they add to the perception of alienation Roberta experiences throughout the book. Barry also has a knack for creating an atmosphere rich with visceral details, even bringing out a strange beauty in frightening and alien situations. Cruddy is a superbly executed book with turns that surprise and thrill, and with an ambiguous ending that leaves equal room for hope and despair.
Heidi Bell

One summer afternoon on a porch in Madison, Wis., someone handed me The Fun House, Lynda Barry's 1987 collection of comic strips. The bright blue book was open to a strip about some bored kids who wonder "what would it be like to cross 23rd Street and take a field trip up there where we never hardly were before." As they attempt to cross the busy street, one of the kids is hit by a car. The rest of them run back to their neighborhood "thinking if we can go fast enough, it didn't really happen." Having expected something like "Peanuts" with a gag line, I felt as if I'd been punched in the stomach.

Sometimes, though, feeling as if you've been punched can be a good thing. Barry's latest book, the richly illustrated novel Cruddy, is as wrenching as Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, but funnier. Here, 16-year-old Roberta Rohbeson tells the story of her life, ultimately confessing the truth about the terrifying odyssey she made five years earlier with her father, Ray. Flipping between the present (the early 1970s) and five years earlier, Roberta's story -- indeed Roberta's consciousness -- juxtaposes the trivial and the unfathomably violent, the silly and the heartbreaking.

On a bus in the middle of nowhere, sitting next to her passed-out father who has recently given her a black eye and bruised ribs, Roberta wants to write a letter to someone, but she can't think of anyone who would want to hear from her. Finally, she starts a letter to Jesus but can't think of anything to say. "Have a Good Summer," she writes, "and Stay Crazy." Barry is master of scenes that make us want to laugh and then, immediately afterward, cry.

The patterns of the novel parallel patterns of abuse, in which fear and pain so often follow close on the heels of laughter or tenderness. In the novel's present, we find Roberta in the dirty kitchen of "a cruddy rental house" where her mother is yelling at her for hitting her sister, Julie, with the Cutex nail polish remover bottle -- a normal enough situation in a house with two teenage girls. But during this scene, Roberta remembers another time her mother got mad at her, picked up the telephone receiver and bashed her in the face with it. "A broken nose," Roberta writes. "A boxer's nose. One of my many distinctive features."

"Were you like, in a car accident?" someone asks her, referring to "the various smashed aspects" of her face. She is scrawny from the year of malnourishment on the road with her father, and she has always looked like a boy -- "a pug ugly one was how the father said it." Her father calls her Clyde and tells people that she is a boy. The sheriff they meet at the horrific Knocking Hammer slaughterhouse calls her Ee-gore, but her ugliness only encourages him to try to use her as a receptacle for his perversions. Luckily, her father has given her Little Debbie, the knife that saves her life many times but also dooms her to feeling that she is as "corroded" as her parents.

Like Allison, Barry shows how completely children are at the mercy of the adults around them. But the issue is not uncomplicated. Barry characterizes children as both the most vulnerable and the most resilient creatures on earth. Most of the adults in Roberta's life have tried to victimize her, but she remains analytical, cynical, funny and less confused about right and wrong than she thinks she is. She knows, for instance, that her mother gets maddest not when Roberta does something wrong but "when she remembers all the ways she's been ripped off in life."

But the abuse takes its toll. While Roberta's romantic side clings to the equation "Truth plus Magical Love equals Freedom," she struggles with the urge to jump in front of trains. She fights her own lack of remorse for the bad things she has done either in self-defense or out of spite by carving "I'm sorry" into her arm, but when her friend the Stick asks her, "Are you sorry?" she dmits she isn't.

Barry is an expert in the too-often neglected vernacular of working-class childhood in urban America, and Roberta, with her haunting and often jubilant voice, is a typical Barry kid, screwed by circumstance but still searching for integrity. Cruddy adds to Barry's already impressive body of work another fine novel that is tender, goofy, scary and thrilling.

Alanna Nash
[T]he author's ability to capture the paralyzing bleakness of despair, and her uncanny ear for dialogue, make this first novel a work of terrible beauty.
NY Times Book Review
Library Journal
Barry, whose recent graphic novel, The Freddie Stories, took as its subject the dysfunctional family from her newspaper cartoon strip, now takes us into the head of an indomitable 16-year-old. Roberta Rohbeson lives with her mother and half-sister, Julie, in a crumbling neighborhood overlooking a garbage-filled ravine. Roberta's energetic voice carries us along two story-lines. In one, Roberta and a classmate, Vicky, cut school and meet up with a series of low-life young men. Simultaneously, Roberta provides us with a running account of a cross-country crime spree with her father when she was 11. This trip involves three suitcases full of money, lots of alcohol, gore, putrefaction, and some of the most desolate, godforsaken locales in modern fiction. It also contains more violence than this reader can usually tolerate, yet Roberta's wacky, irrepressible outlook makes her story fresh, compelling, and sometimes hilarious. Does Roberta survive? All I can say is, she gets my vote as one of the all-time great unreliable narrators. Recommended for most fiction collections.--Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
Alanna Nash The New York Times A work of terrible beauty.

Entertainment Weekly One of the top ten best books of the year.

Andrew Horton The Wall Street Journal Ms. Barry has an ear for the casual cruelties of teenage conversation, for the way in which the most banal exchange can be fraught with hidden meanings and undercurrents of emotion. A dark little gem.

The New Yorker Cruddy's horror-bright narrative and over-the-top mayhem comedy nearly blind you to its plain, heartbreaking realism....An unforgettable, seamlessly imagined voice.

Booklist A work of daredevil literary wizardry.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter Four

And now a word from our sponsor. You should know about Vicky Talluso. In fact, if you are tired of your life, if you want your life to turn instantly amazing, you should KNOW Vicky Talluso. Things happen around Vicky Talluso. Incredible things. Meeting incredible people. Having revelations. Running from the cops.

I met her at school on the day of my fifth-year anniversary of the Lucky Chief Motel Massacre. Public interest had finally laid down with its arms crossed like a vampire in a coffin. No one cared anymore who did it. No one cared if I ever told the story or not. It was what I had been waiting for, but when it finally came it was slightly a disappointment. On every other anniversary someone had always called us, someone from the Las Vegas paper, some reporter asking the mother, "Has she remembered yet? Has she talked yet?" And the mother got her chance at publicity, which is something she dearly loves. But this year the phone did not ring and the mother started looking at me with a little more squint to her eyes, like she was deciding something.

I was expecting to feel relieved when the story died. I was expecting to feel proud. The father always talked about the value of being able to really keep your mouth shut when it mattered. I kept mine shut for five years. It took five years for the parade of interest to finally pass. I thought I was going to feel happy when it did. I didn't expect the empty street it left behind. I didn't expect the old faded trash swirling in devil-cones around me.

They didn't find him. They didn't find his body, but I was thinking it was still there. I was thinking that if I really wanted to, I could take the money I have hidden and I could buy myself a Trailways ticket and I could go check on him. See if he is petrified like the shiny beef jerky man called Sylvester at Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe who is on display beside actual shrunken heads with sewn-up eyes and lips. Or maybe he is all skeleton now, picked clean and bleached out like the displayed bone with WHALE PENIS written underneath it. Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe is a good place to go when you are left wondering what finally became of the person you stabbed and then left in the sun.

On the anniversary of the fifth year I was thinking, What was the point? If it could all end with such a nothing feeling. If it could end with a nothing but the mother's squint, what was the point of getting away with it? The father would have called me an idiot for asking that question. He would have said, "Clyde, sometimes I'm not entirely sure you are my son."

Clyde is what he called me. He wanted a son to pass his wisdom to. Me being born a girl was just a technicality. The world spun a lot smoother once you understood what you were bound to live by and what you weren't. "Clyde," he said. "Your average man thinks he needs to grab the world by the balls. That's why your average man will never get ahead. He grabs at what only wants a tickle and a kiss. Hell. Try it on a bull sometime. See for yourself."

The father came from meat people. Generations of them that could be traced all the way back to the time of the monkey. "The monkey with the most meat wins," said the father.

I said, "I thought they just ate fruit."

He said, "Oh no, hell no. Look at their teeth. Fangs like that? If one bit you, you'd know it. Meat people run things, Clyde. Always have and always will."

It's in my blood. I know it is. Meat person. I am hell with a knife and there is nothing I can really do about it but try and keep my mouth shut and try not to let it show.

Vicky Talluso came toward me across the empty track field and she was walking too fast. I didn't really know her but she was in one of my classes and I had seen her around in the halls. It was hard not to notice Vicky. She had extravagant ways, too much makeup and very bright clothes and sort of a burnt-rubber smell she tried to cover-up with Chantilly. People automatically turned away from her. No one could really stand to look. In the Navy they call it dazzle camouflage. It was the Navy that figured out you could paint something with confusions so horror-bright that the eyeballs would get upset to where they refused to see. Battleships were painted this way and the bomber planes just passed them by. Dazzle camouflage is Navy. The father was Navy too. "Navy all the way, Clyde. Every goddamned inch right down to the end of my pecker."

It was lunch, and I was sitting in my usual place up in the weeds on the embankment near the track field. Passing time there. Some people would call it hiding there. My school is a violent place. People need people to knock over or sock in the gut. I stand out to them for some reason.

During my first days in the weeds I was not disturbed or even noticed by anyone. And then Vicky Talluso came walking right toward me, staring straight at me, wearing shocking-yellow crinkle-vinyl knee boots with super-stacked heels and twisted purple stockings and a pink and orange psychedelic shirtdress with a lime green collar. Her long hair was swinging and she was wearing a kind of hat called a tam, a tam made out of hypnotizing red velvet and she was moving so confidently and so fast and she was flipping me out completely, freaking me extremely. I could not think of one reason why a person like her would be walking so rapidly toward a person like me. Because I am her opposite in every single way. I am about as detailed as a shadow.

I nervously started yanking up grass and weeds and made a pile out of them and when she was very close I started staring at the pile very seriously like it was a science project I was working on, but her face had already been flash-burned into my vision. She had slightly bulged-out eyes with a lot of violet eye shadow and globbed-on mascara and she had a long nose that humped up in the middle and white frosted lipstick coated thick on very chapped lips and her lips protruded forward because her twisted eyeteeth bucked-out, a defect that was weirdly alluring. One of her many weirdly alluring defects.

I smelled the Chantilly and then burning rubber and I wondered about it. What could make a person smell like that. I later found out it was from the hair-removing cream she constantly used because she is a very hairy person. Quite naturally hairy all over, her eyelashes were incredibly long but so were her arm hairs. And the eyebrow hairs of her right eyebrow. The other one was completely missing. I noticed it right away. She was very bald above her left eye. The skin there was crusted.

"Hey," she said. I didn't say anything back. "Hey, deaf," she said. "You. I got your message." She sat down too close to me and started yanking up grass and throwing it on my pile. "I received your message this morning and the answer is yes."

I said, "Message?"

"You're Roberta, right?"


"Yesssssssss," she said, imitating my habit way of saying the word. The mother went insane if me or Julie said "yeah," because only idiots said "yeah." She wanted us to say "yes" very clearly. Make the "s" very clear. She did not want to be known as the mother of two idiots.

"Yesssssssss," said Vicky Talluso. "That's so sick. Yessssss."

She was yanking up the grass vigorously, yanking up roots and dirt clods and I noticed her hands were very small and wide and her fingernails were also small and wide with silver nail polish caked up in chipped layers.

She said, "You have ESP, right?"

I squinted.

"You have ESP and you have contact with an Unfortunate Being, right? You were doing the Ouija board this morning."

I shook my head. She saw me staring at her missing eyebrow. It was inflamed looking. Slightly scabby. I was thinking of the mange creature Demodex. I said, "Do you got a dog?"

"It's 'have,'" she said. "Not that it matters. But it's 'have.' You called me this morning on the Ouija board and said to meet you here because you have something you need to give me.

Only you don't know what it is. You said you needed for me to come to you and tell you what it is you are supposed to give me."

I shook my head no.

She said, "Yessssss." She said, "Do you have any cigs?"

I shook my head again and she yanked up a clump of grass with a huge root clod attached and threw it. She said, "I hate this place. I hate this school. I hate this world. I hate this universe. Do you have any cigs or not?"


"And you weren't trying to contact me this morning?"


"Liar. Not that it matters, but liar."

From her purse she pulled out a flat chipped metal case that made a spronging sound when she opened it. Inside behind a filigree bar were three cigarettes.

"My last ones. Do you smoke?"


"Yesssssssss. That is so sick. Do you care if I steal it? Yesssssssss. That is how I'm going to say it from now on. Yessssss. Yessssss." She offered me a cig. I took it. I took it because the father said that when anyone offers you something, including a new identity, you should always take it and see what it leads you to. Once he found a nudist camp that way.

She pulled out a lighter with usn engraved on it. Big and silver-colored. Special issue. Made for people in windy conditions. You could not blow it out. I said, "Your father Navy?"

She snorted. "My father? Not hardly."

We sat in the weeds awhile blowing stale Newport smoke into the air. I felt a weird electrification from being beside her. Partly it made me want to leave and partly it was what made me stay when the first bell rang and neither of us acted like we noticed it. Lunch was over. We had five minutes to get to fifth period.

"You don't need to lie to me," she said. Blue smoke came out of her nostrils.

"OK," I said. It was the Navy thing to say. The thing the father told me to do. Agree and agree. See what the person has in mind.

"So you did contact me."



Five years is a long time to go around obeying and not talking and having a boring life. Maybe I did contact her. Or maybe my Unfortunate Being did, whatever that was. Maybe it was time to finally tell the story and maybe Vicky Talluso was the perfect person to tell it to.

The second bell rang. Vicky was chewing on grass, grinding down with her front teeth and then actually chewing the grass into a wad. She said, "Roberta. Roberta. Hey." I looked up and her mouth opened and her tongue shelfed out and there was a two-inch wet black ball of grass on it.

I said, "Dag, Vicky!"

She said, "What?"

She saw me looking freaked. Possibly she was more Navy than I was. She said, "Know what is so amazing about that? About chewed-up grass?"

I shook my head.

"Milk is made of only that. Of chewed grass and nothing else. Grass is the milk's Unfortunate Being. Get it? We're skipping fifth, right? You're skipping with me." She picked up her purse and stood up. Some clouds behind her were doing that thing of suddenly looking all shadowed with white glowing edges. She said, "Roberta."


She showed me the grass wad again.

Was it me or Clyde who jumped up and followed her when she took off running?

Was Clyde the Unfortunate Being she was talking about? Or was it actually me?

Copyright c 1999 by Lynda Barry

Meet the Author

Lynda Barry is the creator of the nationally syndicated Ernie Pook's Comeek comic strip and the author of the novel and play The Good Times Are Killing Me, and was a commentator for National Public Radio. She lives in Evanston, Illinois.

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Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Regan342 More than 1 year ago
As a rule, I am a huge Lynda Barry fan and feel everyone else should be, as well. She has a unique voice, and a fantastic ability to not gloss over childhood, the way the rest of us do. While acknowledging the beautiful, she also reminds the reader of the terror a child feels. The lead character in Cruddy, especially, experiences terror the way most of us are lucky enough to never understand.
Guest More than 1 year ago
cruddy is the most amazing book ive ever read, and possibly ever published. i dont even want you to read it because i like to think its my own.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am in the process of reading this book and I think its great. I have only about 20 pages left. I think this book is very entertaining. I would recommend it to any teen or adult for that matter. It is a dark novel and some parts are hysterical. Anyway, read this book! :)
Chancie More than 1 year ago
Unique and clever writing style with an intense plot. Definitely worth reading if you're curious.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Its a good book around hellowing lol
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Guest More than 1 year ago
It is not often that you come across such an original story.... I was horrified one moment and laughing the next. I've even re-read several passages months later just to make sure they are still on paper! A must- read!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was completely engrossed in this very realistic, shocking, and sad tale.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is very, very good. This book took me to where I am now!! Im in my teens as i speak and this book has made me truly think! Its the best book that ever touched the face of the earth!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book Crudy is the best book I have read in years it deals with a girls everyday life and how out of the ordinary it is.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book should win the Pulitzer Prize. Compelling, horrifying and hysterical. I found myself re-reading what I couldn't believe the first time. Astonishingly powerful and completely original in voice and content.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a morbid dark little tale of a young woman bearing the scars of a life that could only have come from a mastermind fictionist (if such a word exists). A tantalizing read that keeps you involved and hoping that something will finally work out for the wonderfully creative protaganist.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very scary?