We gave it an A-
In the future every-one will write a memoir for 15 minutes. And many of them will get published, because reader passion for personal nonfiction (as well as an urge to share on the part of anyone who has ever been abused, gotten drunk, felt ugly, or gone crazy) has only intensified in our Oprahfied culture of empowering public confession. Everyone’s story is interesting to someone, of course, but at this point in the literary onslaught, I’ve gotten tough on what it takes to hold my interest: A memoir is worth finishing only if (1) the life lived is so extraordinary that the ordinariness of the writing is of little importance, or (2) the writing is so extraordinary that the ordinariness of the life is of little importance. In fact, ordinariness transformed into art becomes the whole point of the Cinderella endeavor.
In this second, far more rigorous category I place Mary Karr, the poet and university professor whose gorgeous 1995 best-seller The Liars’ Club is credited with launching the whole me-and-my-interesting-misery industry in the first place. The particulars of Karr’s bounce-around childhood growing up in nowheresville, Texas, surrounded by craziness, drunkenness, and poverty are moderately piquant. But it’s the powerful spiked punch of Karr’s writing voice that amazes. (Frank McCourt did the same thing in Angela’s Ashes, turning what might have been a sodden dirge into a tale of Irish Arabian Nights.)
In Cherry, Karr returns to the confining geography of Leechfield, Texas (the town name is a pseudonym), and sings out in that unique, startling you-cain’t-tame-me voice of hers, once more to arousing effect: Young Mary is an adolescent now, a teenage woman. She’s too sassy and too much of a brainiac for her first best friend, who dumps her; too obstreperous for her steelier older sister’s tastes; too flesh-and-blood for her daddy, shielded in fumes of alcohol; and terribly afraid that her flittery, bohemian, seven-times-married mama will run away again, like she always does. (”Pretty much if you pissed her off good, you could expect to hear her tires tearing out the driveway.”)
Eventually, Mary will run away too, first to the stupor of drugs and eventually to the golden possibilities of California. But Cherry is about what happens in the years before liftoff, while she’s still there, pawing the ground in Texas, dillydallying and touching herself. Mostly Cherry is about the dizzy funk of female teen sexuality, and Karr captures the innocence and dirt of it, the hunger and thrill, with exquisite pitch. The hardest task of a memoirist is to write with the skills and insights of the present but the eyes and sensations of the past. Karr’s connection to her younger sexual self is profound without mercy or nostalgia, and the grown Mary teases out gradations of her adolescent hormonal frenzy. ”I’ve never met a girl as young as I was then who craved a bona fide boning,” she considers. ”But glowing nonspecifically from my solar plexus was this forceful light.” Later, Karr identifies the vulnerable, frightening gap between most girls’ night thoughts and those in the day. ”In the bathroom, the face staring back at you from the swung-out mirror is out of kilter with the altered image of yourself from the date. The edges don’t align — what happened to you?”
In Cherry — so naughty a book title, but so right for this memoir of ripening — the heroine caroms between intellectual hunger and physical desire; the author, in turn, shifts the narrative point of view from first person to second. She describes the surrender of virginity — a ”disappointing somehow” experience — without forgetting how to laugh. ”You bust out the door in your underpants and announce to [your friends] that you had an orgasm (astonishing lie).” She describes a magical mystery tour of hallucinogenics, and a drug arrest from which her ever-flirtatious mother bails her out by sweet-talking the judge.
There’s a tendency in follow-up memoirs to take more hurried steps as the autobiography stretches on (think of McCourt’s ‘Tis), and Karr isn’t immune to impatient bursts of shorthand. ”A few years after this encounter, he’ll die of the AIDS virus that’ll plague other friends in this circle,” she scribbles of a friend’s ex-husband. But that’s for the volume ahead, anyway. Right now, in this remembrance of blooming, Karr continues to set the literary standard for making the personal universal. A-