EW Staff
October 11, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Mary Karr
Memoir, Nonfiction

We gave it an A-

In Cherry, Mary Karr (”The Liars’ Club”) 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.”

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.

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