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Onyx reviews: Cherry by Mary Karr

Writing a memoir, Mary Karr says, is like getting ambushed by the truth. We remember our lives in conveniently prepackaged moments but when we go back to explore the details we often find that we have oversimplified or completely misremembered important events.

Karr, an award-winning poet and essayist, picks up where The Liar's Club left off, recounting the turbulent years of a teenage girl living in a small Texas town that she calls Leechfield, near Beaumont. "A town too ugly not to love," her father says. The voice she uses is very different from that of her first book. When she reaches her junior high years, Karr switches from a traditional first-person, past-tense viewpoint to second person, present tense. It is as if she is an outsider looking at her life. Describing one of her mother's frequent departures from the household, Karr writes: "Now matter how often she takes off like this, you never get used to it."

When her father wasn't working overtime, he was drinking with his friends at the Legion hall. Her mother retreated into prescription sedatives and random affairs. While Karr's story provides insight into teenage angst, her life was not average. Even so, the struggle for identity is common to all girls at this age even if the particular details are not.

One of Karr's interests in revisiting this era was to explore the language of sexuality for teenage girls. She felt that there was no existing socially acceptable way to convey how she felt at that time. She struggled to invent ways to describe times when she was overcome with emotions and thoughts that were sexual in nature without necessarily arising from a desire for sex. While learning how to kiss with her neighborhood friends in her mother's studio, Karr is confronted with her current love interest. As they kiss, she says, "I put my hands up and press them flat against his chest because half of me is afraid I'll fall entirely into him if he keeps holding me." It is a wonderful scene, punctuated by the comical approach of her father and the fear that the five teens will be discovered "messing around" in the studio.

Karr is aware that during those years she was making a concerted effort to create a new self-identity. Her later teen years are less innocent. She finds herself a frequent guest in the principal's office and, on one occasion, a county jail after she is arrested with a group of her friends while partying on a beach. She describes her descent into a world of drugs and aimlessness. A scene toward the end of the book takes place in a blues club in the "bowels of Beaumont behind the shipyards where no underage girl of any color should be granted admission." It is a surreal, dreamy look at a mind under the influence that goes on for nearly twenty uncomfortable pages.

Through it all, Karr describes a growing love for literature and words. She reads the classics and is captivated by the ability of these stories to take her away from herself. She credits her love of words and writing with saving her life.

The memoir ends as it began, with the promise of more trouble ahead as Karr and a number of friends set out for California. In an appearance at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Karr revealed that of the eight who shared a house in California, only two did not spend time in prison. Two were suicides. Whether Karr will complete a trilogy of memoirs by exploring these lost decades remains to be seen.

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