Mary Karr's latest: Rooms still spin

September 24, 2000|By Clarinda Harris | By Clarinda Harris,Special to the Sun

"Cherry, A Memoir," by Mary Karr. Viking. 276 pages. $24.95.

A riff on Mary Karr's July 4 LSD celebration at age 16 (leading to arrest by villainous cops and rescue by her seductive mother) should be the high point of "Cherry, A Memoir." That it isn't (for me) results from the following:

l. Descriptions of tripping have had more than 30 years -- 30 being the highest number a child of the '60s could trust -- to take on a depressing sameness.

2. Karr's description is expertly written. It gave me such a profound sense of impending car-sickness I could barely keep going.

Thus, it also yanked me back to my own past. That about-to-barf sensation was why (along with chickenheartedness and self-preservation instincts) I was never in serious danger of joining some of Karr's friends or mine among the permanently wasted -- suicides, OD victims, drifters, drivers of wheelchairs or purloined grocery carts, small-time criminals.

Good news for folks who fell in love with the first installment of Mary Karr's life history, "The Liar's Club" (1995, Penguin USA): Karr's writing still makes the room spin. Not so much with the druggy second-person melodrama of the acid-primed "heart jackhammering against your rib cage" and its moment when, stoned, naked, suddenly modest, "you roll in wet sand, caking whole handfuls on your breasts" in lieu of clothing, but with brownish pictures of her loving, fatally flawed Texas-Gothic father and her glamorous, Ph.D.-seeking, booze- and sex-driven mother. Here's Karr preparing to slam the screen door on her adolescence, headed for the Coast:

"He finally says to the TV screen, 'You want me to make you some breakfast?'

"He asks you every morning. And every morning you say you're not hungry."

Well-made memoirs can introduce you to a new best friend or re-introduce you to yourself. Karr's latest joins "The Liar's Club" among those.

"Cherry" gives me a friend who not only quotes contemporary poets from my own current Top 20 list but quotes my favorite passages from those poets. Too bad that the few best friends Karr acknowledges in "Cherry" emerge as enigmas or caricatures (except the one who dumped her for trade school -- "You think you're smarter than everybody else"). But maybe that's how it is when your best friend emotes over people you don't know.

Karr gives me back a pre-teen Me who deals the best she can with a family noted for being unlike any others in the neighborhood. Aside from a larger-than-life, beautiful, intellectually remarkable mother, her details and mine diverge utterly. But to young Karr's coping mechanisms, ranging from alternate bullying and cowering through subversion to blind faith (e.g., that socially useful instruments such as breasts would someday appear), I offer a grimy-handed high-five.

Reading "Cherry," I missed the 7-year-old Mary Karr whose literary antecedents inhabit great Southern fiction: twang-voiced, shin-kicking, too-smart, vulnerable tomboys like Scout ("To Kill a Mockingbird") and most of Carson McCullers' young females. I couldn't flat-out love this memoir the way I loved "The Liar's Club." But I say so with the mild regret I feel when I realize I've grown apart from an old friend -- though I still get together with her once in a while to talk poetry and trash.

Clarinda Harriss, chair of the Towson University English Department, has published three collections of poetry and contributed two scholarly works on poetry. Her work appears in many U.S. magazines including Touching Fire: Erotic Writing by Women. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

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