Refinery Daze, Part Two

Something there is that doesn’t love a teenage girl, said Mary Karr in an interview last month. I confess I am full of that something, and have been ever since I was a teenage girl—when I disliked other teenage girls and disliked myself more than all of them put together. You could not pay me enough money to write a memoir of my adolescent years, and so another person’s attempt to do so seems to me both brave and foolish. Karr pulls it off. While one of the feats of her beautiful first book, The Liars’ Club, was to stare down the traumas of her girlhood and tell them in unwavering, lithographic prose, her accomplishment in Cherry is the inverse of that, as she moves on from unspeakable things to things usually considered beneath mention. Without apology, she invokes those years of crushes and recklessness and bad fashion decisions and that awful self-absorption poorly veiled by novice irony.

The result is a fine, engaging work, though like a teenager, it maintains a degree of aloofness from the world it portrays. Karr’s parents disappear for the most part, and her descriptions of Leechfield (the fictional name Karr gives to her Gulf Coast town) are more explanatory and less visual than they were in The Liars’ Club. That book gave us the light given off by the refinery towers—”It’s a chemical-green light the color of bread mold, rising up the night sky like a bad water stain climbing wallpaper”; in Cherry we hear of the men who have died working in the plants. Karr also writes with a certain detachment toward herself, at times in second person. (“In that moment, extremely athletic sobs burst from you. There’s great heaving rigor and an extreme runniness of nose. You feel like a fool and say so.”) One’s willingness to re-inhabit one’s fifteen-year-old self can only go so far.

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to read this book without having read The Liar’s Club. One thing that doesn’t love a teenage girl, or vice versa, is a plot: Unresolved crushes and drug trips are not particularly dramatic. There’s a solipsism problem. Crushes are what we go through before anything happens. A reader who comes to this book cold might struggle with that, whereas Karr veterans come to Cherry already caring about what happens to her, even when not much is going on. But I suspect that even the first-time reader would do just fine, simply because Karr was such a smart, obnoxious oddball living in such a weird place, at a time of large social transitions that seem to have filtered down to Leechfield in unpredictable bits and pieces. The details of how Mary Karr gave lip to her school principal or landed in jail may not be momentous, but they are funny and telling. —KO

Karr spoke with the Observer by telephone from her home in Syracuse, New York.

How did writing Cherry compare to writing The Liars’ Club?

I’m dealing with less traumatic subject matter, and as a result emotionally it was less hard, in some ways. In other ways I think it was more humiliating. I mean, Toby Wolff wrote me a letter a long time ago that said, “Take no care for your dignity.” You know, don’t be afraid of appearing mean or small-minded or anything else, and it was easier to do that as a child. When somebody’s acting like an idiot in this one, it’s usually me. I’m no longer eight years old and I’m no longer bobbing in the wake of my hard-drinking mother. So I’m no longer a victim, I’ve become a volunteer.

Your parents seem much more absent.

Yeah, I mean I think everybody’s parents are more absent from their lives as 12, 13, 14, 15 year olds, or we’d all still be living at home when we were 40. I think I was turning down the volume on them as I was trying to get a beat on who I was going to be when I grew up.

There is much more mention of poetry in this book. At what point did you fall for poetry?

When I was five if you asked me what I wanted to be, I would say I wanted to be a poet. We had a big edition of the Riverside Shakespeare which was the biggest book in the house, and I literally used it as a booster seat. When I was little I read early, and I would memorize chunks of the plays, the famous speeches. My mother was always tickled. She was very delightable. There were obvious downsides to her mothering, but she had that great sort of capriciousness that less than perfectly responsible people often have, where they just get really tickled about something, and that was the sort of thing that I could do that she just thought was adorable.

As an art form, as far as short stories there was no place to get any contemporary work. I remember trying to read the short stories in The New Yorker because you could get that at any library. And it was all this sort of preppy, WASP, John Cheever-type stuff, and the milieu was really foreign. The milieu of the poems would sometimes be too, but often it was more mythic or larger-than-life, and so even though in some ways it would seem further away, it was more accessible.

You convey this sense of language as escape or transformation.

Yeah, I think it was both those things. I think I said it was eucharistic, that it feels like—when you read Wordsworth, you have to pause where he paused at the commas and at the line breaks, and whatever your intonation is, your breathing pattern is going to be like his. I always had that sense when I memorized somebody’s poem that I was taking it into my body and making it part of me. And it was only later that that seemed to me eucharistic, the idea that some other person’s passion would be transformative to you. And it made me feel less lonely always. I think great writing does that. It literally is like communion because it creates a community.

Was there a particular germ for this book?

I’ve been teaching classes in memoir since 1984 at various universities. Before there was this surge of interest in memoir, I was always interested in the form. And there are all these classic books of male adolescence, just seminal books, books that you know, and there are these characters like Holden Caulfield in fiction, and nonfiction. Women writers just don’t go there. Something there is that doesn’t love a teenage girl.

Why do you think that is?

I think we’re self-conscious, and we write people’s names in our notebooks. Suddenly when I was pissed off, going and getting a BB gun was not an option. I had a big crush on John Cleary, and a thinking girl is going to know that by threatening to shoot somebody, you’re not going to get asked to slow dance. So suddenly, impulses that I’d carried out with perfect alacrity, I suddenly was beginning to censor myself and question myself and just seize up like a little machine. At that time there were no Title IX sports, and it seemed to me, though I’m no apt judge of it, that other than the six girls born without pores who got to be cheerleader starting in junior high, girls just stopped doing stuff. They would kind of wait for guys to come get them, and everything started to revolve around that. Boys obviously became interested in the same way, but I felt like they still did stuff. They still went surfing, they still went and shot ducks, they did whatever they did. Somebody pointed out, well you just stopped associating with girls, you were such a tomboy, and I was like, no, my best friend got a boyfriend.

Ultimately I did discover a kind of innocence about that age, as reckless as I was with myself, and as troubled as my background was. I had a kind of innocence that I didn’t know I had. That was a happy thing. And also how much love there was in my life. That there really were all these people. The boy I had the crush on, the guy I go surfing with, Doonie, my best girlfriend Clarice, my girlfriend Meredith who I read poems with, are still among my best friends.

I just read something from some Texas journal that I was always bragging about how great everything was. But that’s how it seems to me. In retrospect I think my friends were the funniest girl, and the biggest criminal, and nicest guy, and the smartest girl. They were and are and continue to be really extraordinary people. And I wasn’t easy to get along with. And they loved me, they were there. A lucky thing.

You have a line about inventing ourselves by who we have crushes on.

I just think that everything we have as children in terms of identity is inherited. You’re seen as your father’s daughter and your sister’s sister, and your position in the family very much determines how you feel about yourself. I was the baby. I was the one who would act out. My sister was the one who took care of everything. And those identities are sort of doled out. You’re born and they stamp a name on you, and that’s who you are. And then you hit this age where suddenly—if you watch films of chimpanzees, all the teenage chimpanzees, boys and girls, just run over and knock the dogshit out of their parents, go loping over on their knuckles and just whack them. And the mom or dad will backhand them and they’ll go tumbling. They’re just in their faces. That’s exactly like being a teenager. You just want to separate yourself from them. You’re genetically bred, it’s in the fiber of who you are to do that. The first people you love that you choose, for me I had a big inner life anyway, and all this hormonal juice and all this time and attention went to the analysis of this perfectly feckless boy who had no clue that his every move was being studied as if for a Ph.D. dissertation. I think I said we learn to imagine around their faces. Seeing myself as being his girlfriend, if I had been able to get that done, it would have given me an identity, sort of like what the cheerleaders got. They’d say, oh, she’s John Cleary’s girlfriend, and you could sort of stop—in your minds what that meant was you could sort of waltz off into the world as a new creature. I think our friends are equally galvanizing.

I like the passage where you describe how shitty the refinery jobs are. It’s interesting to me, a town with a huge industrial presence, what kind of influence that has or doesn’t have. How do you think about it now?

Robert Lowell writes about how landscape is character. I really think some day they’re going to discover that there’s some chemical in the air… there is some thread of darkness woven through that place that is not woven through Appalachia or maybe it is, and I just haven’t seen it, I just don’t know. I used to work in an inner-city ghetto, with emotionally disturbed kids when I was in my twenties. The blind leading the blind. I saw it with them, I recognized it.

In a sense, all of Romanticism, since 1800 and Wordsworth’s preface to the lyrical ballads, is about oh my god, you know, industry is eating nature and we’re becoming alienated from ourselves, and technology is bad, and farm animals are good. That seemed a kind of cliché, but that part of the country… I don’t know what it is. The jobs were so… you couldn’t go there. You couldn’t even get in the refinery gates. No one was ever there. No one ever went to their father’s work. I get the feeling if you worked in a mill, people went in there, you could bring your dad his lunch, or you could go in and out, maybe not, I don’t know, but that sense that they’re sort of devoured, I don’t know what went on in there. And people describe me all the time as poor—it was the sixties, the economy was strong, my father earned union wages, which at that time were extraordinary for a guy whose people had been loggers and sharecroppers and—way more money than his daddy would have ever hoped he could make. It’s not poverty, because there are lots of people way worse off. I don’t know what that is.

Some Yankee interviewer said, well aren’t those people mad at you. I said, no, why would they be mad at me? And she said, well because you say the place is so hideous and it’s such a cultural backwater, and I said, you think they don’t know that? You think they think this is Vienna, they think this is Paris in the Twenties? And they’re looking around wondering why people don’t come vacation there? You think they don’t know it’s ugly?

So, I don’t know what it is, but I also think it’s such a cultural mix of Cajun and Mexican and Irish immigrants and I don’t know what-all kind of genetic gumbo we’ve got going on. The idiom and the music and everything out of there actually makes it a very rich place culturally, just not in terms of what we think of as “high culture.”

This comes across in your prose style.

In Anglo-Saxon prosody, there’s a hexameter, there’s some kind of decasyllabic thing that Chaucer does, they use these bounded sounds that are monosyllables, and they have a caesura in the middle of a poetic line. There are real Anglo-Saxon aspects of it, because other places in the South, there are similes and stuff, but the similes are always very far removed from reality in some way, in a way that the similes from down there are much more in it, you know, “raining like a cow pissin’ on a flat rock.” It never doesn’t have something to do with some kind of bodily function or the milieu and the noise of it, like a cow pissin’ on a flat rock.

They’re good sounds, like double-dog fuck you.

Yeah, double-dog fuck you. It’s a more muscular idiom, it is literally more stressed, there are more stresses in it than the way in French and Latin all the syllables have the same weight—there are only about four vowel sounds and everything rhymes naturally, so you can do all those weird forms, but there’s not that quantitative meter that you get with German or Anglo-Saxon or English.

Did you read the (weirdly resentful and personal) article about the book that ran in Texas Monthly?

A friend just faxed it to me because he was so livid about it. I just think the guy who wrote it didn’t like the book, he doesn’t like me, he doesn’t like the idea of me, he doesn’t like how I look, he doesn’t like how my mother looks, doesn’t like how my sister looks, doesn’t like women, doesn’t like… I really was kind of shocked. I didn’t read the whole thing. Seemed like a guy who was disappointed with the way the world had treated him.

I’ve been that mad before, but never at someone I wasn’t sleeping with. There should have been some yin-yang on the other side of that equation.

Has your son read the book?

He’s not interested in my literary career. He’s fourteen years old, and he’s interested in my ability to drive, buy CDs, cook, what my lay-up’s like, how much I can beat up on him. I spoke to him this summer, when there was an excerpt in The New Yorker, and it came, and he was looking at the picture, which I was too. Somebody else found the picture. I didn’t have any pictures of myself. He said, “Oh my god, you were so young,” and I was like, “Yeah well, that’s what happens when you’re fifteen.” And he said, “You know, I don’t think I’m ready to read your book.” And he said it almost apologetically. And I said, “You know, I don’t have the least interest in your doing that. I’m your mother, and if there’s anything about what’s in it you want to talk about, we can do that.” He’s like, no. I said well, probably when you’re older at some point in your life you will, and I think that’s kind of mature, for him to decide that, and stick to it.

What’s it like when you go back now?

I’m always glad to see people, but there is always that sense of Oh Shit. Doonie has a phrase, we have a friend of ours out in California who won’t go back the
e. He’s suspicious—he jokes about that Karankawa curse: Those who live here are chained and those who leave must return. He’s afraid if he goes back, he won’t be able to leave. Doonie says he’s afraid he’s going to get stuck on tar baby. I’m always glad to leave. But also there’s that sense of recognition and people who get it and know who I am and where I came from.

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