|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Violet Durkey has a hamster and a miniature turtle who lives in a shallow plastic bowl under a palm tree with snap-on fronds, and an albino rabbit named Snuffles with pink ears from Easter. It's the hamster I'm thinking about here.
One night he nosed out of his poorly latched cage and scampered across the glowing iron surface of the gas heater, blistering the bottoms of his tiny pink feet, the same feet whose weensy, lizard-like nails Violet had wanted to lacquer Sashay Pink. (Her mom said oh no Violet.) The vet prescribed a greenish antibiotic balm Violet was meant to smudge on with a Q-tip every morning. This balm, deemed icky by Violet, was so tasty to Hamster that he not only licked it up but ultimately (unbelievably) came to nibble off the digits (fingers? toes?) on all four of his feet, which act left him-when Violet burst in from school that day-with bleeding stumps so painful for everybody to look at that he had to be put to sleep.
Violet told this tale of woe in the skating rink's tiny toilet-her blue eyes misting over and her Earth Angel Pink mouth quivering while Ruth Ann, Sherry, and Suzy Torvino gathered around. The skating rink was a hurricane-fence cage with a brown canvas roof and vinyl flags like those you see in a used car lot strung whapping around its perimeter. From box speakers mounted at the tent's four corners, the Beatles sang that she loved us yah, yah, yah. This song was warped by coming through the pink plywood door to where we stood at a makeshift sink with little blue packets of Wash-'N'-Dri for after you got done peeing. (Actually, because I never overtly peed on my hands, I neverbothered with hand washing anyway.)
In the tiny mirror that hung from a nail poked in fiberboard, Violet's round, clear face was flushed under her pale freckles. This was the year before we all hit sixth grade. Violet straightened her curly brown hair not with bouts of Curl Free, which her mother said she was too young for, but by having her big sister steam iron said hair under a towel, using clouds of Aqua Net after to hold it. But in the close humid air of that bathroom, the hair spray was failing. From Violet's otherwise glossy pageboy, small ringlets were breaking loose at the hairline, seizing up in a way that evoked Renaissance paintings (Hans Somebody the Elder) that my mother praised for their delicacy. (The fact that Mother, who was a painter, kept art books deemed our entire clan somewhat suspect.)
In short, Violet was beautiful, and much beloved by the general populace. Her parents and two teenage sisters pampered her, yet she managed to represent herself as both entitled to that pampering and somehow surprised by it. The skates she owned (not rented) had held no one's feet but hers and did not leave her socks smelling like goat turd. They fit exactly. They were fresh-polished nurse white and had pink pom-poms laced to the toes. The pom-poms matched her gingham clam-digger pants with the knee ruffle, and those matched her crop-top. She and her mother had stitched this outfit up themselves from the Simplicity pattern that morning. When, during school, I whined out loud about my lack of wearable dresses (I had scads but only deigned to wear four of the least babyish ones, and so had to repeat my Monday dress each Friday), Violet always asked why I didn't just stitch something up. She recommended me to Sigona's dry goods, where a bin of mod print remnants cost just fifty cents each. More than once she told me that a dress for me probably wouldn't take a yard.
She might as well have asked why I didn't slay a zebra for its hide for all the interest I had in sewing.
Violet smelled like grated lemon peel and baby powder. Her Snoopy box purse, balanced open on the sink edge, held a miniature packet of pink tissues for just such weepy moments. There was also a pink rat-tail brush, and a minuscule glass vial of perfume that reminded me of nothing so much as a cyanide capsule from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., my favorite TV show about international spies.
I poked my head past the elbows of girls encircling her while she dabbed under her lashes with the Kleenex wad. I asked to borrow her brush, hoping that this begged favor might buy me entry to their circle when gawking outside it for fifteen minutes had failed to.
"I'm sorry, Mary." Violet talked in italics sometimes when addressing me, the way you would to a deaf person or foreigner you were pretty sure otherwise wouldn't twig to what you were saying. "My mother won't let me loan it out. I'd get in so much trouble." It seemed that Mrs. Durkey feared Violet's glossy head would wind up squirming with head lice if she passed her brush around (a not unfounded fear). With that, I was dismissed. She drew back into the comfort of her friends. In a nonitalicized voice, Violet told Ruth Ann and Sherry and Suzy Torvino that they needed to bring their own pillows to her sleepover that Friday.
My expression must have altered, for Violet's eyes in the tiny mirror clicked in and then detached from Sherry's and Ruth Ann's in turn. We'd all been on a cobbled-together track team that summer, myself the relay alternate, and I'd fancied myself somehow welded into Violet's good graces by a meet we all traveled to in Houston. But Violet's gaze, which had lit on the floor, said otherwise.
"You're having a sleepover?" I finally said.
This kind of overt angling for invitations was part of what kept me outside the elbows of those girls. I seemed destined to blunder into conversations nobody else cared to have. Most girls knew better. If Mavis Clay had overheard her own omission from such a party, she would have skated out without a word. But I had to pipe up, to worm the mystery of the event into the air. (Counterphobic, some shrink will later call it, being magnetically drawn to whatever one fears most.)
"See my mom only told me I could have five girls, and Ruth Ann's my best friend, and Sherry's my second-best, and Suzy's my third. And if I don't invite Joettie Bryant, she won't invite me to her trampoline party. And if I don't invite Lynda Delano, her dad will yell at my dad at work. And if I don't invite Jasmine Texler, Joettie can't come because her mom goes to Church of Christ and doesn't know my mom." Violet gaped at my ignorance of these complex barters in social currency, and all the girls but Ruth Ann mirrored that gaping. (Ruth Ann was someone whose calm blue eyes tended to fall on me at such moments with something like care.)
"But that's six girls," I said. Violet looked puzzled, her head cocked itself a notch to the right. I held up my hand and counted them off each finger. "Ruth Ann, Sherry, Suzy, Jasmine, Joettie, Lynda." With Lynda I stuck my thumb into the air and let my jaw hang.
"Well okay." She looked imperiously at me. "My mom said I could only have six girls then."
Such was the early logic of exclusion, as explained to me by Violet Durkey-who, in all fairness, committed no crime other than being adorable enough that I wished to be her. I don't remember if I actually told Violet Durkey at that instant that she was a snotball and her hamster probably ate his feet off as part of a suicide plan to get loose from her. At some point in my social career, I did let such a comment fly. Which is precisely why I didn't get asked to sleepovers. Other girls from families weird as mine managed to overcome their origins. Lecia got invited out by popular girls. So did Jasmine Texler, who'd moved to our town after her mom drank a bottle of laundry bluing and died. Jenny Raines even got elected cheerleader though her mom lived in the state loony bin.
Without the company of other girls, the summer became the first of many vastly vacant summers, a long white scroll of papyrus onto which something longed to be writ. Unless I'd found some book to lose myself in (the ferocity of my appetite for books rivaled a junkie's for opiate), the idleness was stultifying.
That summer I fell into reading as into a deep well where no voice could reach me. There was a poem about a goat-footed balloon man I recited everyday like a spell, and another about somebody stealing somebody else's plums and saying he was sorry but not really meaning it. I read the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and fancied myself running away to Africa to find just such an ape man to swing me from vine to vine.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird three times in one week, closing it on the last page, then cracking it open again to the first till the binding came unglued and had to be masking-taped back on. In it, a girl my age got rescued from a lunatic trying to kill her by the town bogey man, who'd years before stabbed his daddy with scissors while cutting paper dolls. She actually took this guy Boo by the hand and made friends with him, showing a courage and care beyond anything I could ever muster. (When our town maniac, a massively fat man named Otis, came shuffling down the road talking in whispers about Jesus and the Blessed Virgin and the good elves of this world, I always crossed to the other side.) In the second or third grade, I'd seen the movie of this book, and always superimposed my own face over that of the puckish Scout, while also picturing for myself the chiseled resolve of the young Gregory Peck playing her daddy. Inside their story, I could vanish from myself.
But books have last pages. The instant I finished one such page, I'd be forced to look up at whatever soap opera I had on. In the overacted, melodramatic gestures of those black-eyelined actresses I felt my own day's heaviness even more keenly. They flung their wrists to their foreheads in torment, or clutched their own heaving bosoms, or pitched their black-veiled selves across glossy coffins. In short, they moved through dramas of consequence far beyond any I'd ever be called to act in.
Mostly, the house was empty. When Daddy wasn't pulling shift work at the refinery, he either tried to cadge some sleep or stayed off on mysterious rounds. At thirteen, my sister Lecia had already manufactured a persona for herself that ranged free of the family and its unspoken stigmas. She filled out a 36C cup and dated a variety of football stars. When she climbed the bleachers at a game with legs a yard long in cutoff jeans, her blond flip sprayed into a form no wind could alter, high schools boys stood up by the row.
Mother was only in her studio one afternoon a week, not painting, but teaching painting to various Leechfield housewives. In response to an ad she'd run in the Gazette, women came to set up easels there Wednesday afternoons. To keep them from baking alive, Daddy installed a secondhand window air conditioner that leaked icy water into a pie tin with a steady drip that marked those otherwise timeless afternoons like a conductor's baton. I was supposed to be exiled to the house for these sessions, for which the ladies paid good money to have Mother stare with furrowed concern bordering on horror at their canvases-muddy-looking peaches and grapes, stiff-backed sunflowers stuck dead center lackluster vases. The worst were the portraits-kids and grandkids mostly, with massive hydrocephalic foreheads and wall-eyed expressions. ("One eye's looking at you and one's looking for you," Daddy said of one.)
The percolator would burble up the burnt coffee smell under the pine resins from the turpentine, a heady mixture that drew me from the solitary house's endless black-and-white soap operas. Mostly, I'd just sit outside the door on the hood of Mother's yellow station wagon in the dark garage, listening to the ladies' endless complaints about their husbands. I specifically recall one lady saying she wouldn't let her husband touch her pocketbook (a word I'd somehow always known was a euphemism for pussy) till he'd bought her a dishwasher.
"Hell, you might as well sell it down on Proctor Street, if that's the deal," Mother said. You could hear the intakes of breath all around, and pretty soon the offended lady came bumping out the door, wet canvases in hand. Once or twice I'd stand in the doorway and wheedle for my own sketch pad and charcoal and one of those giant beige gum erasers that I liked to eat when I was littler.
Other days, Mother was at college studying for her teaching certificate-a real oddity back when few moms worked outside the home. But she wanted a higher standard life than the local average and feared destitution at every turn. (Ironically enough, it was her own extravagant habits that tended to edge us to that brink. During a few screaming matches over debts she ran up, my daddy accused her of far outspending anything she earned teaching, but I wouldn't swear this was true.) Her college work seemed to me like yet another escape route from the banality of time at home with us.
Mother also had a secret history of hasty marriages and equally hasty dissolutions. Pretty much if you pissed her off good, you could expect to hear her tires tearing out the driveway. Within days, the knuckles of a process server would rap on your door. But I'm writing about the 1960s, when Lecia and I didn't yet know about all her pre-Daddy adventures. She ultimately racked up seven marriages in all, but we'd only witnessed the two to my daddy-with the short, nearly negligible blip of my stepfather. (He'd appeared after my grandmother's death, after Mother had been briefly carted off to the hospital for-among other things-the vast quantities of vodka she'd managed to guzzle.)
Such events kept our household from drawing much traffic. Kids loping straight through the yards on Garfield Road tended to cut an arc around ours as you might a graveyard. Probably this was more habit than any deliberate shunning, but the effect was the same.
With the house carved of human life, I took undue interest in the occasional chameleon that slithered from the tangle of honeysuckle through the vents of the air conditioner in my room. Once I spent a whole morning at the bathroom mirror trying to get one such unfortunate lizard to serve as a dangly earring by biting my earlobe. (If you squeezed his soft neck just right, his mouth would open like a clasp.) But he'd only bite down for a second or so before his jaw opened and he fell down my shirt front or into the sink and I'd have to catch him again. His tail finally broke off, and our Siamese-then hugely pregnant-wolfed him down her gullet in two quick swallows.
The house held me in a kind of misty nether-time. The air conditioner hummed. The refrigerator kicked on and lapsed off. I waited a lot, though for what I don't know. Nothing whatsoever seemed to be approaching from any direction. I wait like an ox, Franz Kafka wrote and Mother underlined in one of her college books. The sentence was copied down like an axiom into one of the dozen or so Big Chief tablets I bought that summer, then let stay blank after a few scribbled pages.
But if it's great literature you're after, Big Chief tablets seem gray-paged and flimsy, too pale to inscribe with genius of the caliber I aspired to. So I pilfered a black leather sketchbook from Mother's studio. To disguise my theft, I glued green and red Christmas glitter on the cover in a swirly pattern meant to be hypnotic. I never ripped out her pencil sketches of fishing boats, or the advice on portraiture she'd dated 1964: "Details of features not as important as mood, character, or manner etc. Artist must be proficient enough to work intuitively. Relatives or friends may not see person truly." Under this, I wrote in baroque cursive: "Me too-Mary Karr 1966."
To hold that book in my hand-its simple bulk and being-is to grasp onto the hard notch from some faintly erased time line and draw myself back there. Opening it, I breathe old air.
Any fable I've told about who I was then dissolves when I read that loose-jointed script I wrote. We tend to overlay grown-up wisdoms across the blanker selves that the young actually proffer. (When my son was born, I remember staring into his blue, wondering eyes, then asking the obstetrical nurse what he might be thinking. "You know the static channel on your TV?" she answered.)
So in actual written artifacts from my past, I sound way less smart than I tend to recall having been. My poems clip-clop doggedly along, less verse than trotting prayers, wishes to become someone other than who I found myself to be, to feel other than how I felt. The diary entries don't differ from any eleven-year-old's, though the pathos I found in them makes me wince: "I am not very successful as a little girl," I wrote. "When I grow up, I will probably be a mess." The Sharp family had dragged me to two tent revival meetings that summer in a town called Vidor (famous, by the way, for its Ku Klux Klan fish fries). On those steamy nights where people fanned their dripping faces with funeral fans on which a blue-robed Jesus knocked on a gleaming golden door, I never followed the weeping line of believers to the altar to dedicate my life to the Lord. But the rhetoric stayed with me. My writings are rotten with it. Mountains crumble and rivers run dry, etc. Rainbows come out after floods worthy of Noah. Every cheek is rosy, every cloud silver-lined. Reading those pages, you can almost hear the tambourines shaking in the background and a surge of ballpark organ music as the preacher asks you to testify.
Unfathomably, the career path I drew was the strange one I wound up undertaking, "to write 1/2 poetry and 1/2 autobiography." Though I never managed to wrest for myself a career as "philosipher," whatever I thought that meant, I also longed also to become "a real woman, a hardworking woman with a pure soul. Not just a perfumed woman on the outside."
I also wrote a lot of poems for the star of a cowboy show on TV called Branded, on whom I'd developed a wicked crush. In fantasy, he was interchangeable with Marshal Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke and Palladin from Have Gun Will Travel-cowboys who would soon magically transform into knights in armor after I discovered tales of chivalry. Jason McSomething, I think they called him. He'd been falsely convicted of treason during a Civil War battle and sentenced to hang before escaping. Most episodes, he galloped around the West looking for folks who could prove he wasn't a big sissy who ran out on his regiment. But somebody who thought him guilty would always pop up, so he'd have to slink out of town-hiding under some wagon straw or holding onto the side of a train. Always he left behind some widow schoolteacher or banker's daughter he was just fixing to get frisky on. I devoted more than a few pages to praising Jason's long suffering. (The stoicism I favored was less in the mode of Marcus Aurelius and more reminiscent of the donkey Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.) I imagined him hoisting cups sadly in the air, saying goodbye to folks he'd never see again. One reads, "Faithful companions we may be./ But, Soldier, fill no glass for me!" That sort of thing.
When the pencil lead wore down and faded to slate gray, I'd sometimes walk to remote neighborhoods and knock on the doors of strange houses. If someone answered, I'd claim I was trying to sell Christmas cards, though I lacked any samples or other convincing evidence that this was so. I don't recall trying to extort actual dollars. (I had money, and there was nothing to buy anyway.) I just had nothing better to do.
People were damn nice about it. They handed me sugar cookies and Rice Krispie Treats in waxed paper, foil-wrapped kisses and hard candy by the fistful, but no Christmas card orders got totted down, even though I copied some random names from the phone book to convince everybody how well cards were selling.
Once a middle-aged woman in a pale blue duster hovered in the doorway a minute before bursting into tears. She put both hands on her jowly face. The tears rivered between her knobby fingers while I tried to figure out how to flee. Cool air spilled from her house as I stood melting in the heat.
"It's okay, baby," she said, into the damp palms pressed over her mouth after I'd said I was sorry for about the fifteenth time. "You just put me in mind of my boy. He's passed over-" She choked off a sob, a body-wracking convulsion that really made me wonder if people could break in half with grief.
Finally she gathered herself up. For a heartbeat's space, neither of us said anything. Then her shoulders relaxed a whit. "Do you want to see?" she finally asked, in a voice hardly above a whisper. She didn't even say see what. Nor did I run through any of the dire warnings I'd heard about getting in cars or houses with strangers. Maybe that's odd. Doubtless a more regular kid would have cobbled up a dental appointment to bolt off to. But the weight of her grief drew me to her. She held open the aluminum screen an extra notch for me to pass through.
The living room was cold as a meat locker and smelled like a pot of cabbage left too long on the stove. The light was muddy as gloom, all the shades being drawn flush to the sills. She'd also laid down plastic runners along the most traveled paths to keep the carpet naps fluffy. So plastic paths led from the door where I stood to a mossy-looking plaid sofa, then zigzagged to what must have been kitchen and bedroom and bath. Tables that would have hit you at knee level or shin level in the dark crowded every inch of available floor space, and were themselves packed with little porcelain figurines. A more useless assemblage of objects I've never seen-hoop-skirted shepherdesses with pilgrim's staffs, guys with powdered wigs, dinner bells, and gilt-edged snuff boxes. I remember specifically a disembodied female hand with rings and bracelets and red nails. The hand seemed to be reaching up from under the wood grain.
The dead boy's pictures lined one whole wall. Of his face, I remember almost nothing. He was blond when little, and his hair got darker as he grew. What's stuck with me in those staggered pictures' advance through his short life were the costumes marking any boy's inching toward manhood-a toddler with suspendered shorts; a school-age boy with a homemade birthday hat; then a Little Leaguer's striped knickers; baptismal robes; and finally a gangly teen in a white dinner jacket holding a corsage box.
"He shot himself," she said. Her face told me it was on purpose. Up till that day, he'd been the perfect boy, she said. Then he went to a dancing party and asked a girl onto the floor. And she said no. He came home miserable, opened up the Bible to the Twenty-third Psalm, and shot himself, right in the head. They were in the next room at the time watching Lawrence Welk's Champagne Music Hour.
What she did next is the kind of gesture I've since learned that I somehow invite. (After I stopped thinking of such moments as my fault and began to regard them as an odd form of privilege, I handled them better.) She steered me by my shoulder along another plastic path to the coffee table. I did not shrink from her touch. I both longed to see and dreaded what we were headed for: the worn black Bible on the rectangular laminated wood. A laminated card stuck out of the pages to keep the place.
Hefting up the Bible worked some tranquilizing voodoo on her. She became strangely calm, as if getting to the heart of some matter she'd been circling all day. She'd done it before and often. Her ease told me that. Some passing assemblage of milkmen and water-meter readers and Avon ladies had stood where I was standing and sought to arrange their faces into tolerable expressions, as I then did. Certainly I wanted to stay upbeat, but grinning like a monkey was way wrong. I settled on the look of earnest expectancy, but pleasant.
She opened the massive Bible and held it out for my study. A stain the color of burnt chocolate took up most of the pages' deep valley. The paper had puckered from the wet. Still the words were legible. "The Lord is my shepherd...," I read in my head.
Then I was saying a hasty goodbye, for only a few years before, my own wild-assed mother had threatened suicide. Part of me believed the notion was contagious, a germ I could pick up that might reinfect Mother. I didn't consciously ponder this, but it flitted through me strong enough that before the lady could say diddly, I was shaking her leathery cold hand on the porch in waves of heat. Then I was running home full tilt as if the house wouldn't be empty when I burst in. The tedium there was suddenly preferable to the terror of those houses I loped past, inside which were unknown losses.
Sometime that summer I stopped prowling around strange houses and concocted a real job shining shoes at the barbershop. This act of mine thwarted Daddy's vow that his daughters never work for pay while under his roof. Still, I defied that order by taking his shoeshine box to the shop and weaseled myself a post in the red leather shine chair.
The shop held special allure that week since I'd overheard somewhere that John Cleary was going in for his annual crew cut the next day. I watched in worshipful silence as, under Mr. DePello's humming clippers, hanks of John's shining yellow hair fell in slow strips to the linoleum, where it was swept into the copper dustpan. Afterward, his shaved and knobby skull floated in Mr. DePello's hand mirror. There'd been around his ears that strip of untanned scalp we called "white sidewalls." John's hand ran over the stubble real slow, as if it held for him a great mystery. The gesture was one that drifted back to me in my bed at night, such puzzled tenderness as he touched that bristle. Maybe he even caught a mirrored glimpse of my figure in the giant red vinyl shine chair, for my awe must have been palpable. Mr. DePello untied the apron and shook it so short hairs fell to the floor in cuneiform patterns. John handed the mirror back and said yessir looks good, thank you. To me he said seeya at school, though school was months off and our paths till then crossed practically every day.
The bell jangled as he left. I watched him swing his leg over his bike and shove off down the sidewalk in a strip of sunlight. Long after he'd gone, I resisted the urge to snatch a handful of his clean yellow hair from my suddenly growing collection of John Cleary memorabilia.
Probably this unlikely brush with his grooming habits kept me coming back to the barbershop another day or so. But he never showed up again. No one my age did. Nor did I ever have a single customer. And I was, if not overtly lazy, quick to bore. The slow turning of Field and Stream pages (they allegedly hid the Playboys in a drawer when I showed up) and the repetitive, metallic snip of Mr. DePello's slender scissors on some bald guy's tonsurelike fringe eventually wore me down to my natural, nail-biting state.
After I watched Song of Bernadette on TV that summer, I drew in my glitter-spackled book a picture of Jesus. For a while, I prayed ardently on my knees by my bedside-not yet for titties or for John Cleary to ask me to the couples' skate, but for a best friend.
Only one girl showed outlaw tendencies nearly as wild as mine: Clarice Fontenot, who at fourteen had three years on me, which discrepancy didn't seem to matter at first. The only obstacle to our spending every conceivable second together that summer was her Cajun daddy's tight rein on her, which consisted of seemingly innumerable chores and capricious rules he ginned out.
The Fontenots lived in a celery-green house on the corner that seemed to bulge at its seams with her wild-assed brothers. They all slicked back their hair on the sides and walked with a sexy, loose-hipped slouch. If they looked at you at all, the glance came from the sides of their faces. Like their tight-lipped father, they barely spoke, just radiated a sly disapproval.
Clarice's role in that Catholic household seemed to be serving their needs. While they ran the roads, she scrubbed and hung laundry and baby-sat a variety of black-eyed cousins whose faces (like hers) were spattered with freckles as if flicked from a paintbrush. Her blights and burdens put me in mind of Cinderella's, though Clarice rarely whined. Still, her circumstances defined her somehow, for her jittery, electric manner seemed to have formed itself solely to oppose both her station in life and her brothers' quiet surliness.
Clarice would have hung out at my house every day for the abundant food and the air conditioning if not my somewhat peculiar company. But her daddy's strictness was the stuff of neighborhood legend. A compact, steel-gray man, he was about the only guy on our block who didn't do refinery work (I think he worked for the gas company). That he wore a tie to work made him not exotic but peculiar. No one's daddy knew his schedule or ever heard him say more than a passing hey. Usually, Clarice could only play at my house an hour or so before she'd be called home for chores. I didn't take these partings lightly.
Once she was back home, I'd patrol the strip of road before her house, skateboarding past palmettos and the dog run and back again, trying all the while to predict her return by the advance of her work. Window by window, the glass she was washing would lose its grease smears and begin to give back blue sky and flickers of sun when I rolled by. Or I'd watch through those windows while Clarice unhooked each venetian blind. I'd try to measure how long it would take for her to lower those blinds into the Clorox-fuming bathtub, to wash each slat, then towel it off and reappear to hang the blind, giving me an exasperated wave before moving to the next.
Sometimes her daddy just summoned her home for no reason. Which infuriated me. She'd joke that his fun-meter had gone off, some invisible gauge he had that measured the extent of her good time and sought to lop it off. He'd insist she stay in her own yard, and forbid me to cross over the property line. I'd pace their yard's edge for an hour at a pop, or just sit cross-legged along their hurricane fence line reading while their deranged German shepherd loped and bayed and threatened to eat my face off. From my lap I'd flip him the permanent bird using a Venus pencil to keep my fingers cocked in place. A few times, Clarice joined me in this border-holding action. She'd loiter in the heat on her side of the fence, glancing over her shoulder till her dad's gray face slid into a window or his gravelly voice shouted her in.
Doubtless her daddy meant this all as some kind of protection. Plenty of girls her age "got in trouble," and there were countless lowlife characters circling like sharks to pluck any unwatched female into libidinal activity in some hot rod or pickup truck. But my own parents were so lax about corralling me at all ("You can do anything you're big enough to do," Daddy liked to say) that I found Mr. Fontenot's strictures mind-boggling. In my head I engaged in long courtroom soliloquies about him, at the ends of which he and his feckless sons were led away shackled while a gavel banged and Clarice and I hugged each other in glee.
Clarice bridled against her daddy's limits but never actually broke the rules. She lacked both the self-pity and the fury I had in such abundance. She laughed in a foghorn-like blast that drew stares in public. She could belch on command loud enough to cause old ladies in restaurants to ask for far tables. I never mastered this. But thanks to her, I can whistle with my fingers, execute a diving board flip, turn a cartwheel, tie a slip knot, and make my eyeballs shiver like a mesmerist. While other people worried what would come of Clarice if she didn't calm down, for me she had the absolute power of someone who fundamentally didn't give a damn, which she didn't (other than toeing her father's line, which she seemed to do breezily enough).
My first memory of her actually comes long before that summer. It floats from the bleached-out time before we'd passed through the school doors, so we had no grade levels by which to rank ourselves.
A cold sun was sliding down a gray fall sky. Some older boys had been playing tackle football in the field we took charge of every weekend. In a few years, they'd be called to Southeast Asia, some of them. Their locations would be tracked with pushpins in red, white, and blue on maps on nearly every kitchen wall. But that afternoon, they were quick as young deer. They leapt and dodged, dove from each other and collided in midair. Bulletlike passes flew to connect them. Or the ball spiraled in a high arc across the frosty sky one to another. In short, they were mindlessly agile in a way that captured as audience every little kid within running distance of the yellow goalposts.
We could not help watching. Even after I stepped accidentally in a fire-ant nest and got a constellation of crimson bites on my ankles. Even after streetlights clicked on and our breaths began to spirit before us and to warm my hands I had to pull my arms from my sweatshirt sleeves, then tuck my fingers into my armpits so the sleeves flapped empty as an amputee's. In fact, even once the game had ended, when the big boys had run off to make phone calls or do chores, we stayed waiting to be called for supper. I can almost hear the melamine plates being slid from the various cupboards and stacked on tile counters. But having witnessed their game, we were loath to unloose ourselves from the sight of it.
It was before the time of stark hierarchies. Our family dramas were rumored, but the stories that would shape us had not yet been retold so often as to calcify our characters inside them. Our rivalries had not yet been laid down. No one was big enough to throw a punch that required stitches or to shout an invective that would loop through your head at night till tears made your pillowcase damp. Our sexual wonderings seldom called us to touch each other, just stare from time to time at the mystery of each other's pale underpants or jockey shorts, which we sometimes traded looks at under a porch or in the blue dark of a crawl space. For years our names ran together like beads on a string, JohnandBobbieClariceandCindyandLittleMary (as opposed to Big Mary, who was Mary Ferrell). With little need to protect our identities from each other, we could still fall into great idleness together-this handful of unwatched kids with nowhere to be.
At some moment, Clarice figured out as none of us had before how to shinny up the goalpost.
That sight of her squiggling up the yellow pole magically yanks the memory from something far-off into a kind of 3-D present. I am alive in it. There's early frost on the grass, and my ant bites itch. Clarice's limbs have turned to rubber as she wraps round the pole. She's kicked off her Keds, so her bare feet on cold metal give purchase. About a foot at a time she scoots up, hauls herself by her hands, then slides her feet high. And again. She's weightless as an imp and fast.
At the top of the pole, she rises balletic, back arched like a trapeze artist. She flings one hand up: Ta-da, she says, as if she were sheathed in a crimson-spangled bathing suit with fishnet hose and velvet ballet slippers, then again ta-da. We cheer and clap, move back to the ten-yard line to take her in better. This is a wonder, for her to climb so far above us. And there we align ourselves with the forces of awe that permit new tricks to be dreamed up on chilly fall nights when nothing but suppers of fried meat and cream gravy await us, or tepid baths.
For a few minutes, Bobbie Stuart tries to weasel up the other pole, but he's too stiff. His legs jackknife out from under him, and his arms can't hold his long thin body.
Then Clarice does something wholly unexpected for which she will be forever marked.
She sticks her thumbs in the gathered waistband of her corduroy pants with the cowgirl lassos stitched around the pockets. With those thumbs, she yanks both her pants and her undersancies down around her bare feet. She then bends over and waggles her butt at us as I later learned strippers sometimes do. Screams of laughter from us. John falls over and rolls on the ground like a dog, pointing up and laughing at her bare white ass, which still holds a faint tan line from summer.
We've just about got used to the idea of her butt when she executes another move. She wheels around to face us and show us her yin-yang, a dark notch in her hairless pudendum. Her belly is round as a puppy's jutted forward. Then our howls truly take on hyena-like timbre. And there across the ditch, which marks the realm of adult civilization, appears the fast moving figure of Mrs. Carter through leaf smoke of a ditch fire. She's holding the spatula in her hand with which she intends to blister our asses, Clarice's most specifically.
But she's a grown-up, Mrs. Carter. Her steps on the muddy slope are tentative. Not wanting to funk up her shoes with mud, she hesitates before she leaps across. And in that interval, Clarice slithers down the yellow pole and tears off in a streak. And the rest of us flee like wild dogs.
Decades later, I asked Clarice point blank why she did it. We were in our forties then, living two thousand miles apart, and talking-oddly enough-on our car phones. Her voice was sandpaper rough with a cold, but it still carried the shimmer of unbidden amusement. I'd only seen her every two or three years-the occasional holiday, at my daddy's funeral, and after Mother's bypass surgery when she kept vigil with me. Still, there's no one who'd be less likely to tell me a flat-footed lie. Across the hissing static, I asked why she took her pants down that day, whether somebody had dared her to and I just didn't remember.
The answer that she gave remains the truest to who she was and who I then so much needed her to be: "Because I could, I guess," she said. "Wasn't anybody around to stop me."
Table of ContentsCherry Prologue
One - Elementary's End
Two - Midway
Three - Limbo
Four - High
What People are Saying About This
“Karr captures, exactly, what it’s like for a girl to kiss the first boy she loves….She captures, exactly, what it’s like to start high school….She captures, exactly, what it’s like to be a book-hungry teenager, enraptured by the words and heady ideas that offer transport from the banalities of small-town life….As she did in The Liars’ Club, Ms. Karr combines a poet’s lyricism and a Texan’s down-home vernacular with her natural storytelling gift.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A compelling ride through [Karr’s] adolescence….What distinguishes Karr is the ability to serve up her experiences in a way that packs the wallop of immediacy with the salty tang of adult reflection…her descriptions of the bruised-lip, druggy wonder of teenage love are precise, unsentimental, and lovely.” Chicago Tribune
“The Liars’ Club left no doubt that Mary Karr could flat out write…the one question everyone had upon finishing her story was, could she do it again? Cherry lays that question to rest once and for all….It never lacks for those trademark Karr details, but it’s about all of us. Newsweek
“A smart, searing memoir….Romance, in all of its wondrous and heartbreaking incarnations, is Karr’s great subterranean subject, the ground upon which her wily, whip-smart writing catches root.” Lisa Shea, Elle
Stunning…If The Liars’ Club succeeded partly because of its riveting particularity, Cherry succeeds because of its universality. The first book is about one harrowing childhood, the second about every adolescence. She can turn even the most mundane events into gorgeous prose.” The New York Times Book Review
“Cherry is the kind of book a brave parent could do a lot worse than to give to a teenager….Teenage girls might come away from it knowing that they’re not freaks, that mistakes aren’t fatal, and that good writing kisses just about everything better. And for teenage boys, reading Cherry would be like stealing the other team’s playbook….Mary Karr gives memoir back its good name.” San Francisco Chronicle
“Here, intact, is the smart, sassy, wickedly observant voice first met in The Liars’ Club, a voice that knows how to tell a story in a crackling vernacular that feels exactly true to its setting.” The Washington Post
“Cherry delivers. Karr still has her delicious knack for making you guffaw through horrible events…its humor, warmth, and crackling language should keep Karr’s fans hungering for another round.” People Magazine
“Karr writes about adolescence with the same emotional precision that illuminated her account of childhood…[she] nails with wonderful specificity the complex way adolescents bond intellectually and emotionally. Her descriptions of her early sexual experiences are also original. Her language is frank without becoming clinical, and she captures the swooning tenderness of a kiss without sounding sentimental…firmly rooted though it is in a particular time and place, Cherry, like all serious autobiographies, is about something much more universal: the construction of a satisfying identity or, more precisely, the discovery of a fundamental self that was there all along.” The Philadelphia Inquirer
“It’s the powerful spiked punch of Karr’s writing that amazes…Cherry is about the dizzy funk of female teen sexuality, and Karr captures the innocence and dirt of it, the hunger and the thrill, with exquisite pitch. Karr’s connection to her younger sexual self is profound with mercy or nostalgia….Karr identifies the vulnerable, frightening gap between most girls’ night thoughts and those in the day….Right now, in this remembrance of blooming, Karr continues to set the literary standard for making the personal universal.” Entertainment Weekly
“This book is best when it portrays things common to all of us in adolescence. The woeful sense of isolation. The fierce desire to have friends. The agitated, wondrous discovery of things sexual. Those awkward kisses in the dark. And the risks.” USA Today
“This book is about being a female adolescent, a horrible fate; the best that can be said of it is that one does recover. The extraordinary thing about Karr, in addition to the poetry of her writing, is her stunning honesty.” Molly Ivins, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
“Awesomely written…Cherry is beautifully wrought and tart in its angst-wrangling….Karr can render sentences so powerful as to make you bow your head in reverence.” The Village Voice
“Cherry is beautifully written, without a single word wasted. Karr’s poetic yet tensile language creates exceptional landscapes, both physical and emotional…her broad but precise descriptions, coupled with piercing insights into the sometimes agonizing trials of growing up, create fully realized characters with whom the reader can immediately empathize….Hardly a soul alive hasn’t felt exiled in the dark territory of adolescence; Karr maps this landscape expertly and candidly.” The San Diego Union
“Step aside, J. D. Salinger, and take your alter ego Holden Caulfield with you. Mary Karr has staked out your turf, the upended land of adolescence. And she is just smart, angry, sensitive and self-mocking enough to defend it with everything she’s got…this time Karr has created another fiercely poetic and alternately bruising, comic, and picaresque account of her wild and painful journey through early adolescence. And if ever the tortuous metamorphosis from caterpillar to damaged butterfly has been captured in print, this is it…the tales of her first serious crush, first kiss and first date [are] each gorgeously delineated in all their tragicomic dimensions, and unique in the way they capture the overwhelming combination of attraction and repulsion involved in early sexual experiences. But everything Karr touches is emblazoned with this raw honesty and a sense of the breathtaking confusion and emotional terrorism of adolescence.” Chicago Sun-Times
“Cherry, Karr’s riveting, high-octane sequel to The Liars’ Club, disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted piece of wisdom about there being no second acts in American lives…it is the kind of book that leaves you exhausted with pleasurefor the jigsaw music of its language, its unyielding candor, and the vignettes of adolescence that barrel down on you with all the force of a life reimagined with heartbreaking humor and sadness….It’s about time that teenage girls have their stories told. Karr’s account of her teenage years is a universal chronicle of the boredom and skin-tingling excitement that is the essence of growing upanywhere….Karr remembers with such vividness that the story strikes the reader with the force of literature, the power of experience felt at that instant….She is each of us as an adolescentyearning, romantic, racing against our own heartbeats.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Karr’s eloquent tome on her tumultuous teen years is not just another memoir…her masterful concatenations of language are downright addictive….She has taken the courageous step of stepping back fully into that sometimes unlovely adolescent self, a place where pride, self-loathing, euphoria, idealism and rage stutter and roil so violently that emotions are hard to pin down from one moment to the next. Karr articulates this roller coaster of sensation and experience with razor-sharp authenticity….Cherry offers a genuine and eloquent portrait of what adolescence could be like for women of the baby boomer generation.” The Seattle Times
“Cherry is a bittersweet look at first kisses, first loves and first times, those mutable moments that somehow become trapped like insects in amber…it is also a layered examination of the many ways in which we grow from children to adults, assembling ourselves as unique individuals, separate from our families and our villages….As much as Cherry is a coming-of-age story, it is also the explanation of how a woman can emerge from her tangled history.” Los Angeles Times
“This sequel to The Liars’ Club takes us where few female memoirists dare to treadadolescence. Karr’s small East Texas hometown may be surly, but her depiction of how she got out of it is warm, unsparing, and filled with humor…she manages to evoke both the peculiarities of the ‘70s and the universal humiliation connected with coming-of-age.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“By some alchemy of words we get within the teenager standing in the tremulous green light of a bathroom, watching her friend twist the razor’s stem so the safety hinges open ‘like a magic doorway.’ Again and again, Karr goes inside the dangers, the devastations of coming of age….Cherry is a tour of the mind, conducted with the pitiless deliberation of art.” The Dallas Morning News
“Mary Karr’s scorching memoir of the 70s picks up where The Liars’ Club left off…her lickety-split sentences combine what she calls her daddy’s gift of voice with her own poet’s sensibility to make Cherry an amazing experiment in language as well as story.” The Portland Oregonian
“Fans of Karr’s award-winning The Liars’ Club will not be disappointed by this feisty, funny, and tender memoir of a drug-ridden coming of age….Karr vividly captures those moments that are so important to a girl growing up, and explains why they are important.” Kirkus Reviews
“Moving effortlessly from breathtaking to heart stabbing to laugh out loud raucous, the precision and sheer beauty of Karr’s writing remains outstanding.” Publishers Weekly
Reading Group Guide
North of your head, south of your neck, or right between your eyes!
There is a point on the threshold of adolescence when hormones come shimmering and a child is suddenly an id-embattled teenager. Although both sexes undergo it, this sea change is most often documented—in semen-stained and bloody-knuckled prose—by men. But in Cherry, Mary Karr leads us where others have feared to tread: into the heart of a girl's sexual coming of age.
As she sits poised on the brink of junior high school—the young Mary, smart and sassy, rides her bike shirtless around the block one fine summer day, much to the consternation and amusement of neighbors. With this act of rebellion Mary takes the plunge into the bewildering territory that will mark her teenage self: contempt for authority, thrill-seeking derring-do, and a will to ride into the heart of whatever terrifies her. Whether daring her mother at high volume through the locked bathroom door to make good on her repeated suicide threats or cooking up a "sex club" in her garage where she French kisses her first crush, the adolescent Mary displays the moxie that powered her through the hardscrabble east Texas childhood Karr writes of in The Liars' Club.
In high school, Mary encounters further complications: the pill and pills (as well as a host of other substances), boobs and the fear of a Reputation. Through this murk, Mary tries to "manufacture a whole new bearing or being, some method of maneuvering along the hallways that will result in less vigorous psycho-social butt-whippings than those endured in junior high." The personas come and go (and come again), as do various friends, teachers, and other sources of succor. There's Meredith, who tempers Mary's hotheaded shenanigans with literary wit, and Doonie, the wild-man beach afficionado who crawls into Mary's life "on his hands and knees like a reptile," and Phil, the long-haired bundle of coolness (or so it seemed) who fully initiates her into the countercultural triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. While she revels in the high-octane tunnel-vision of male sexual desire, the ever-restless Mary finds herself yearning for the emotional intimacy that is promised yet strangely missing from the physical act. In an account suffused with warmth, hilarity, honesty, and heartbreak, Mary negotiates the confusions and illusions of sex and romance.
Along the way, rebellious Mary butts up against authority in all its forms—from the school principal to various Texas law officers. And her repeated yanks at the chain reveal truths, both universal and particular: the vastly different standards to which boys and girls are held, the ignoble groping for identities endured by both sexes, the tough east Texan culture that allows a wide berth for personal idiosyncrasies yet wreaks a mean vengeance on cultural transgressions, the dark turn that the sixties' hippie culture took as it rounded the corner into the seventies, and the pain of facing our parents' all-too-obvious failings. And by casting all these hilarious, sad, and outrageous events, Karr does far more than show us her teenage years; she raises up a mirror to the first stirrings of our own sexualized selves.
ABOUT MARY KARR
Mary Karr grew up in east Texas near Port Arthur, a rough-and-tumble industrial region. She has won Pushcart Prizes for both her poetry and her essays, and her work appears in such magazines as Granta,Parnassus, Vogue, Esquire, Poetry, The New Yorker, and American Poetry Review. Her three volumes of poetry are Viper Rum, The Devil's Tour, and Abacus. She has been awarded grants from the NEA, the Whiting Foundation, and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, among others.
The prize-winning tale of her hardscrabble Texas childhood, The Liars' Club, heralded a renaissance in memoir when it was published in 1995. It was a New York Times paperback bestseller for more than a year, was selected as one of the best books of 1995 by dozens of periodicals, ranging from The New Yorker and The Washington Post to Time,People, and Entertainment Weekly, and was named one of the ten Notable Books of 1995 by the American Library Association. The book won the PEN/Martha Albrand award for best first nonfiction work, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was given the Texas Institute of Letters Prize for nonfiction.
Cherry has likewise been on a plethora of bestseller lists: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle,New York Newsday, New York Post, The Boston Globe, and Book Sense. In addition, it was a New York Times Notable Book and an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year.
Mary Karr currently teaches literature and creative writing at Syracuse University, where she is the Jesse Truesdale Peck Professor of English Literature, and lives in upstate New York with her son, Dev Milburn.
"—The smart sassy, wickedly observant voice first met in The Liars' Club."
—The Washington Post
"—[Mary Karr] proves herself as fluent in evoking the common ground of adolescence as she did in limning her anomalous girlhood...the self-portrait Karr draws in this volume is that of a girl avid to grow up and yet reluctant to relinquish her remaining innocence."
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"—A fully achieved, lyrically rendered memoir of a bright young girl's coming of age in the seventies." —Joyce Carol Oates,The New York Review of Books
"—Cherry is about the dizzy funk of female teen sexuality, and Karr captures the innocence and dirt of it, the hunger and the thrill, with exquisite pitch . . . Karr continues to set the literary standard for making the personal universal." —Entertainment Weekly
"—No one tells stories like Karr . . . the voice of the young Mary is funny,
profane, eloquent, shameless." —USA Today
"—A bittersweet look at first kisses, first loves and first times . . . it is also a layered examination of the many ways in which we grow from children to adults, assembling ourselves as unique individuals." —Los Angeles Times
A CONVERSATION WITH MARY KARR
You grew up near Port Arthur in east Texas, and Cherry does a great job at communicating what that was like. In what ways do you think growing up there held you back? In what ways do you think it helped you?
It's a little like asking how you would be if you were not yourself. The poet Louise Gluck has some great lines: "How ignorant we all are most of the time, seeing things only from the one vantage, like a sniper." Of course, it was a tough place to grow up; it has a high suicide rate. But like it or not, a certain amount of suffering breeds a kind of vigilance into us, and I guess as a writer that is a good thing. It teaches you to pay attention, puts you on alert. I think of the Mark Twain line: "Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging." Also, the idiom of the place is infused in my fiber. In what ways did it hold me back? I can't imagine. It would have been nice to have more books.
Cherry really captures the tension that many teenagers feel between conformity and rebelliousness, between wanting to do whatever is necessary to become one of the "chipper, well dressed girls" and wanting to stand out from the oppressive atmosphere of sameness. How do you think the countercultural winds that were blowing in the early seventies answered both of these needs? Do you think this tension plays itself out differently today?
There's an outlaw tendency innate to adolescence, but I also came of age when a lot of powerful chemicals were in evidence. Thanks to drugs and alcohol I drove into a lot of objects that had more molecular density than I do. I also learned about funerals early. The book opens when I'm moving to California with this bunch of surfers who hollowed out a board to transport a brick of pot and various pharmaceuticals. Most of them went to prison. Two were suicides. One vanished into the Witness Protection Program. The only ones thriving today are me and my pal Doonie, and we both stopped drinking and drugging more than a decade ago. That says something about how the countercultural winds blew over me.
As for kids today, either I'm in psychotic denial or my son seems way smarter than I was. Does he have the teenager's need to act recklessly as a way of defining himself apart from his nagging parents? Absolutely. The fact that he plays three sports gives him an outlet I gave up when I discovered the wonderful world of pharmaceuticals. That said, I pray a lot.
The teenage Mary found a lot of solace from female friends like Meredith and Stacy but also felt drawn to the largely all-male surfer crowd of Doonie and his friends. Can you compare the different things that you got out of your friendships with girls and those with boys? Which have proven more durable?
Actually, I was sort of driven to hang out with boys as much as drawn to them. Meredith disappeared on me first, into her relationship with her boyfriend. Then she and Stacy went away to college at a time when most other girls wouldn't be seen in public with me. So I took up with Doonie and the guys when my girl posse vanished. Having a great dad probably permitted me to pal around with guys in a way that some women don't. But the major characters in this book—male and female—still stand among my best pals. Clarice is still the funniest woman I know. And before Meredith died of liver cancer last year, I was traveling, but we talked at least once a day till the end. Stacy was in New York two years back when I scattered my mother's ashes. So was Doonie, the ex-dope dealer. He and John Cleary, whose first kiss stopped my heart, helped me clean out the house I grew up in three years ago. They showed up with trucks and boxes and this crew of burly guys. I told them all in advance what period the book would cover and was very lucky that they all seemed to love it, or at least no one brandished a firearm in response. Each one has done amazingly well. Meredith was a lawyer. John's in sales in L.A. Clarice has a great job in business managing boatloads of logistics stuff. Stacy runs an ad agency she started. Doonie runs a multimillion-dollar construction business on the coast and still surfs every day. So these hometown friendships have proved extremely durable regardless of gender.
One of the things that stands out in Cherry is your mother's frank, even defiant openness about sex. How did her attitude affect your approach to sexual matters as a teenager?
I think we're hard-wired to be private about our sexual activities, especially where parents are concerned. From the time I was a teenager, my mother's candor about subjects like masturbation and birth control horrified me, but perhaps that ultimately endowed me with a more candid acceptance of carnality in the long run. When my son was little—say, seven, eight, nine—I used to be able to talk frankly to him about AIDS and birth control and now if we're watching a movie and kissing comes on, he tends to leave the room.
Since the publication and success of The Liars' Club, you have been associated with memoir and its resurgence. In your opinion, what role does fiction and fictionalization play in that genre? What about in your work in particular?
Don't make shit up. Period. I read with horror some textbook on memoir that says, "just make it up and see if it's true," which is horse dookey. As a memoirist, I strive for veracity. Still, these books are acts of memory, not acts of history, but the reader understands at this point in literary history that the memory is subjective and ergo flawed. The friends and kinfolk about whom I've written all tend to be well armed. So I'd be loathe to manufacture stuff about them. Obviously you reconstruct dialogue. People have asked how I remember all this stuff, and of course I've only convinced myself that I do. But if you don't remember something, or a memory seems unlikely, confess it to the reader—whom I consider a kind of partner in the enterprise, rather than some dupe or adversary. My pals and my sister all read both my books in manuscript, and I've had no corrections beyond spelling and miniscule points of fact. But before Meredith died, she asked that I alter a passage from Cherry she feared would hurt her mother. So I did. But to enter the memoir stadium prepared to lie is like deciding to play football without being hit. If you don't remember, call it fiction. It's how it's written anyway that will determine its value, not the actual events.
Your first forays into writing were as a poet. Can you describe the process of turning to memoir? What role has your background in poetry played in the writing of Cherry and The Liars' Club? Has the success of these two books affected your self-definition as a writer?
Joyce once said that everybody starts out to be a poet and then realizes it's too hard. I published an essay in Parnassus called "A Memoirist's Apology" about how that's true. Poetry privileges music and prose privileges information.
One of the things Cherry talks about is how poetry saved my life. Words literally fed me, in a eucharistic sense. Taking somebody else's words into the meat of your body is to be nourished by another person's passion, transformed by it. It's like communion, also, in the sense that reading binds us as a community—to know others have felt as you do, or to glimpse grand, noble, or terrifying feelings you're not otherwise privy to. It flexes your compassion muscle. Plus poetry's so portable; so easy to download into your head. No other art form that I know of is comprised of such common tools. The same language everybody uses to get butter passed is what makes Shakespeare. With lyric poetry, you can hold in your mind an entire artistic experience, not abridged, not telescoped, not just the melody, not just a generalized image minus light and brushstroke. The whole thing. It's available to you while you're pumping gas at the 7-11.
Success has affected my self-definition in that I have more money. Writers pooh-pooh that idea, but it's a huge deal.
How did the experience of writing Cherry differ from that of writing The Liars' Club?
With The Liars' Club, I had this great inherited idiom, my father's language mostly, which was also the language of east Texas where I grew up. When you describe somebody with an ample backside, you might say she has a butt like two bulldogs in a bag. The sentence is graphic and florid, poetic and hilarious. It also operates right at the bounds of what the public can stand in terms of propriety. As soon as I stopped trying to sound like Eudora Welty and let myself write in my own childhood tongue, the gates of The Liars' Club swung open.
The Liars' Club narrative was also inherited like the language. It's the kind of family coming-of-age tale we all tell whenever we make a friend or fall in love.
With Cherry, I felt I was inventing a language, wrenching it out, which was not so different than writing poems for me: there are lots of experiments and myriad failures. Once I hit the voice, or the idea of several voices, (Cherry changes tense and person to try to capture the angst or ardor of different ages) I still needed to find some narrative truth of the period. I threw out about 500 pages before accumulating stuff and, before the last draft, tossed two-thirds again as much as saw print. With Cherry I also lacked anonymity—I couldn't bullshit myself that nobody would read it. When The Liars' Club sold so massively, I was thunderstruck, having written it doubting anybody I wasn't kin to would read it at all. Writing Cherry, I started out feeling conspicuous from the git-go till the tale got kick-started. Then I magically forgot all that through some massive preoccupation with the work. Or psychotic denial.
What writers did you like to read when you were young? Which were most influential in your development as a writer? Which helped you the most in your personal life as you negotiated its difficulties?
Starting when I was four or five, I began to memorize poems, and by the time I was seventeen, I'd memorized Shakespeare and cummings by the yard, Eliot and Frost. Great writing truly makes you feel less lonely. In personal terms, it helps you the way love does sort of (love being the ultimate palliative). I read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in high school. The French Existentialists—who don't really improve one's mood one whit—do teach you to observe suffering in a way, and inadvertently, they offer a stoic response as an example. Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor seemed to be talking about my people in a way Salinger wasn't—much as I loved him.
Why are there so many men's coming-of-age memoirs and so few by women?
Male adolescence saturates the culture anyway. Look at most rock 'n' roll. One reason I wrote Cherry was to plug a hole I perceived in the literary canon. I taught classes in memoir at places like Tufts and Syracuse, and women seem to pole vault over adolescence.
There's one kink in that observation: aberrant sexual stuff. About such events, women writers seem way loquacious. Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings meticulously describes being raped around twelve, all the conflicting feelings. But, when she gets knocked up in high school, the boy and all the specific events are just skated over. Same as Katherine Harris's controversial The Kiss. She writes with great frankness about her mother taking her to the gynecologist to be de-flowered and later about her affair with a long estranged father. But when she becomes sexually active with a boy at Stanford, those episodes are dismissed with a single sentence containing almost no detail. Frank McCourt has no problem writing explicitly about "interfering with himself" all over Ireland, and so does [Frank] Conroy, but teenage girl masturbation just isn't done, even in fiction. Although Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here deals with these feelings in fiction...
That's partly because no language exists for female sexuality at this age at all. Look how common the parlance is for all this stuff for guys—there's no female equivalent to the words for male erections "chubby" or "woody." Those words are light-hearted and almost childishly stupid sounding. This is a very libidinous culture in terms of imagery meant to stimulate or simulate male longing. Boys are able to tease each other openly about taking showers that are too long or ogling Victoria's Secret catalogs, even in front of their parents. In There's Something About Mary, we have Cameron Diaz using male ejaculate as hair gel. Yea, it's supposed to be gross, but try to picture a female equivalent.
Is there any difference between the male and female adolescent sexual experience?
Obviously, I've no idea, and no one elected me to speak for my gender. The common wisdom says young girls feel the same as boys only less strongly, claiming the feelings are identical but guys feel more. It seemed my teenage sexual feelings differed in quality, but were of equal intensity.
Guys certainly get to talk more openly about their longing and sound more action-oriented. "I wanted to ask her to the prom," "I wanted to peek in her window and see her bra," etc. In Cherry, my fantasy wasn't boffing John Cleary into guacamole, or being boffed. It was him skating over to me with a long-stemmed red rose. That had gut-wrenching ardor attached to it, strangely enough. Real passion. How can you write about that as sexual? It doesn't ding the cultural bell. Also, there are these humiliating rituals your crushes prompt. You write some guy's name on your notebook eight thousand times. Who wants to admit that?
What are you working on now?
It's a secret, the prose I'm hammering on. But I just finished the introduction to a new edition of Eliot for Modern Library. I write lectures on poetry and memoir through the academic year and for speaking engagements. And I always scribble my ladies verses. Plus love letters.