PRETTY NEAR EVERYONE has childhood memories worth writing about. Between the freaks you call family, a few true-life strange events like deaths and relocations, and the inescapable decline into the miasma of self-loathing that is adolescence, everyone's got a story. But American childhoods are linked by too many common touchstones (TV, alcoholism in the family) to justify the many copycat memoirs Mary Karr's The Liars' Club has spawned.
Karr's own small-town Texas childhood is worthy of literature partly because of the unusual quantity and originality of the swearing her family indulges in. From the time she can speak, Karr can curse, and a blistering Texas cuss will almost always trump a mild Minnesota profanity on the page. (In the actual world, a mild oath may treat the ears more gently.) Karr has a long memory for this language and the injustices that inspired it, which makes The Liars' Club a mesmerizing story. In that book, Karr refers to Jesus as a "mewling dipshit" on the elementary school playground, and tells a neighbor dad, "Eat me raw, Mister," when he asks her to come down from a tree and stop shooting his family with a pellet gun. She writes about her scary dying grandma and her sweet, boozy parents, too, but it's surely the great variety of salty language that made The Liars' Club a bestseller.
In Cherry, Karr picks up that story where she left it. She's just entered the double-digit age group. Her skills as a topnotch ass-whupper and champion cuss-word artist now cause her existential worries. Do boys like girls with foul mouths? No. Does Karr like boys? More and more every day. Should she change to win them? Hah! As if. Karr knows what she is, and knows everyone else in her small town knows everything about her, too: the fact that her dad can outdrink and out-hit anyone; that her artistic, tormented mother paints nekkid folks; and that her gorgeous, 36C sister is not to be messed with. The neighbors have been drawing out lawn chairs to watch the Karr family traumas unfold on the front lawn for years--there's no hiding now, and there are no transformations that can be carried out behind curtains.
Instead, Karr escapes into books. "I was 11, and fell into reading as into a deep well where no voice could reach me," she says. With her ear for language, bad and beautiful, her love of a good, long, well-told lie, and her anticipation of entering a world bigger than the place that holds her, she seems to have been readying to write her story even as she was living it. Cherry and its predecessor are the rewards for a life led the hard way. There's no justice like going back to your small town rich, famous, vindicated, and finally understood.