Lynda Barry Is Tougher Than Me
Lately, I've been shopping my own bookshelves more than usual, partly because of the general economic cataclysm and partly because of the staggering percentage of books I own but haven't read -- many of them good books, or so I've heard, by authors I love.
One of those authors is Lynda Barry, whose illustrated novel, "Cruddy," really shouldn't have been staring at me unheeded for a full decade. But it was, so I grabbed it out of the bookcase last week and sat down to take it in. Almost immediately, I was under Barry's spell again, conscious only of the story she was telling and the unmistakable realization that I'd missed her voice.
The narrator, Roberta, is 16 years old and grounded, and from the start it's evident that we're in for a bleak tale leavened with humor. Bleakness has always been a presence in Barry's work, where home is on the wrong side of the tracks, and grown-ups aren't necessarily protectors of the children in their care:
Now you need to know the scenery. First the house. The address. 1619 East Crawford. A rental in a row of rentals all the same, all very hideous on a dead-end road between Black Cat Lumber and the illegal dumping ravine. People have been heaving off old mattresses and old stoves and dead dogs ever since I can remember even though there is a huge nailed-up sign that says NO DUMPING! VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED! But in all the time of our living here I have never seen anyone get prosecuted once. I don't think a prosecutor even exists.
A few lines later, reporting on the naked man rumored to lurk in the garbage ravine: "I have never seen Old Red, but I believe in him. There have been nights when I have heard the drifting sound of his lonely yodels."
Roberta is telling us the story of her life, weaving together the distant past, the recent past and the present. None of it is healthy, very little of it is happy, some of it is gruesome, and almost every moment is fraught with danger: Nearly unspeakable things have been done to this girl, by her father most of all, and they haven't let up yet.
At times "Cruddy" was hard to put down, so eager was I to discover what had happened to bring Roberta to this point. But finally, at the top of page 188, I did put it down. The narrative is gripping, the central character beautifully drawn, but the novel's surfeit of ugliness, cruelty and neglect finally defeated me. I couldn't bear to watch anything else befall this child.
Abandoning a book before the end doesn't bother me like it used to, but it bothers me with this one, maybe because I've loved Barry's work for so long. I also feel a little bit like a wuss for turning my gaze away.
Lynda Barry, I think, is tougher than me.