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As I read Lynda Barrys new novel Cruddy, I tried to remember how her voice sounded when she read excerpts to us at The Loft Literary Center this Spring. Barry has a way of making even very dark things seem funny. She has a loud, real-sounding laugh and she talks like a kid, lots of made-up words and adjectives. Things are "freaky" and "skanky" and "cruddy."
It is this skill that makes it possible for her to pack words of painful-knowing into the mouths of her adolescent characters and keep people from looking away.
Like Barrys comic strip, Ernie Pooks Comeek, Cruddy, speaks to people who were always totally creeped out by things like spirit week and pep rallies and student body elections. Better to be labeled: mental case, dork, gaymo, four-eyes, bookworm, geek than to sit like an alien watching cheerleaders "Woo Ha" and do splits to the soundtrack from An Officer and a Gentleman.
Roberta Rohbeson, Cruddys sixteen-year-old narrator, is a nobody-girl with a bashed-in and scarred face. And then she meets Vicky Talluso, another misfit; but one with flair. "She had extravagant ways, too much makeup and very bright clothes and a sort-of-burnt-rubber smell she tried to cover up with Chantilly."
Vickys hip exterior belies the fact that her father, who named himself "Susie Homemaker, after seeing the E-Z Bake Oven commercial and grooving violently on its song," is a monstrous, constantly-coughing lump who lives in front of the TV wearing only a ratty, pink chenille robe.
But this is nothing compared to what Robertas been through. Shes killed people. And by the time we are reading her story Roberta has killed herself. Her suicide note opens the novel. In it, she assures us that: "I got my happy ending." At first the note is easy to dismiss as the ranting of a teenage drama queen, who has recently been grounded for a year after "the mother" had to fetch her acid-tripping daughter from police clutches.
Stuck in her room with nothing to do but write, Roberta spells out the point of her bloody tale before she even begins the telling. "Truth plus Magical Love equals Freedom." Five years have passed and she has never explained why she and her dog Cookie were found walking in the desert, very hungry and covered with blood.
She tells the story now because keeping silent hasnt made her feel any better. And after every so-called "normal" person has pretended not to see her broken teeth and nose, she meets Vicky and is befriended by a cast of mentally ill people, schizophrenics, agoraphobes and cutters who embrace her with their "Magical Love." The Turtle, a hippie man who trips out on a drug called "Creeper," calls Roberta "Hillbilly woman." "Because you are a hillbilly girl lost in a hillbilly world." He has schizophrenia and has recently escaped, with his friend The Great Wesley, from the Barbara V. Hermann Home for Adolescent Rest. She likes him because he likes her and, for awhile, she gets lost in her crush and forgets about how her homicidal ex-meat cutter father took her on a murderous ride through the desert in search of three suitcases containing his dead fathers defrauded fortune.
The book is full of gruesome illustrations and details both gorey and funny, but like Roberta says: "The author knows this is a lot of details to remember for your reading comprehension but the author badly wants to give you the who, what, when, where and how of this story right away because the author very badly wants to get to the question of why. The burning question of why she turned out the way she did and why she ended up the way she ended. Ask a burning question, get a burning answer."
Cruddy is the kind of book that is missed when its over. It makes the reader think about the cruelty of teasing the girl who wont change out for P.E. and the greater ill of looking the other way when you see whats there when her clothes really do come off.
Meleah Maynard recently left the mental health field to pursue her first love, writing short stories and book reviews. For the past seven years she has worked as a day treatment counselor in Minneapolis, teaching people living with schizophrenia how to write creatively, cook a well-balanced meal and scrutinize the next bunch of candidates who hope to be our next President.
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