My So-Called Death

Lynda Barry is well-known as the fecund imagination and wispy pen behind Ernie Pook's Comeek, a syndicated comic strip that excels at mapping the intricate anthills of adolescence. Through unforgettable characters such as Maybonne and Marlys, Barry has dissected the turmoil of the wonder years. Barry's latest novel, Cruddy (Simon & Schuster), addresses the reader from this same perspective, though it is more harrowing and more ambitious than Barry's cartoons (or her previous novel, The Good Times Are Killing Me).

Cruddy is purportedly the autobiography of Roberta Rohbeson, 1955-1971. We're told right away, "If you are holding this book right now it means that everything came out just the way I wanted it to"--i.e., her suicide plan has been successful. Given the events depicted in the novel, Roberta has good reason to want to off herself; she's caught up in a story so sordid that David Fincher might flinch. Yet Barry has managed to sketch a glimmer of possibility around this seemingly preordained tale, a twist that offers a tantalizing glimpse of this cartoonist's storytelling prowess.

Deftly organized, the novel cuts between two parallel stories in alternating chapters. The first recounts the recent events that have prompted Roberta to write "the cruddy book of her cruddy life." Befriended by Vicki Tallusoj, a truant druggie on the prowl for "chocolate mesc" and various other hallucinogens, Roberta starts to experience "incredible things." She and Vicki cast their lot with "the Turtle," who turns them on to a drug called "Creeper" and small doses of his philosophy. Together with "the Great Wesley" and "the Stick," they make a motley crew of disaffected youth; cruddy is an adjective they all seem to know by heart and live by rote, without much hope for escape.

The other story in the book concerns "the Lucky Chief Motel Massacre," an event that occurred five years prior. Barry teases out this story by dwelling on the road trip that led up to it, in which Roberta's father, who insists on referring to her as a boy named Clyde, forces her to pretend she is a mentally impaired boy to facilitate his search for three Samsonite suitcases stuffed with cash. The search inevitably turns into a killing spree with the father educating Roberta in the ways of drinking, smoking, and homicide, even while he overtly plans her demise.

It's quite a ride, and for the most part Barry handles the bumpy and weird narrative with skill. Roberta's voice is especially charming. She never refers to her parents using personal pronouns, for example, suggesting that they are more important to her as detached story elements than intimates: "The mother is what they call a main character. The mother is a very main character who says I live to torment her." Lost in a universe of crud, our narrator feels abandoned: When she looks to the stars, she knows "there was nothing looking back. Twinkle twinkle little star, you are nothing. You have been dead for thousands of years."

Vicki and "the father" swim indefatigably through the muck of this despondence, while other characters flail in such quicksand. Vicki's father, for instance, is an immigrant transvestite who constantly screams to himself things like "SHIT AND GODDAMN! I HAVE TO GET ORGANIZED!" while drinking hard and watching television--another absentee parent in a book riddled with them. Other supporting characters are hastily drawn, lacking the unique spark of such tragicomic despair, and instead serve to confuse the plot.

Barry accentuates her strengths as a cartoonist--the perfectly honed adolescent-female voice, the edgy beat of the language and imagery, and the penchant for self-contained scenes that speak volumes--by making this an "illustrated novel." Framed in old-fashioned curlicues that brilliantly split the difference between scribbly and ornate, her drawings of the characters and settings could well be Roberta's visual depictions of her diaristic account. At the same time, they are deftly professional, and reveal aspects of Barry's tonal palette little seen before; these are darker, more psychologically attenuated drawings than in her strips. The result is a creepy, contemporary fairy tale/adventure story, an emotionally resonant account of a girl's twin tales of woe.

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