With the satisfaction one of her heroines might take in removing the wings from a fly, cartoonist-turned-novelist Lynda Barry seems

determined to pluck off the

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This Girl's Life

Lynda Barry's bizarre brand of bleakness.

With the satisfaction one of her heroines might take in removing the wings from a fly, cartoonist-turned-novelist Lynda Barry seems

determined to pluck off the very last ribbons and bows from our idealized conception of girlhood. In this age of abuse, child beauty-queen murders, and milk-carton kids, she paints an unflinching warts-and-all portrait of one girl's miserable family in her new novel, Cruddy. The former Northwest author has already established her own uniquely sympathetic narrative-graphic view of troubled kids in strips including "Ernie Pook's Comeek" (which has long graced our back pages), a perspective that Cruddy both sharpens and darkens. Cruddy

by Lynda Barry (Simon & Schuster, $23) The Good Times Are Killing Me

by Lynda Barry (Sasquatch, $12.95) Her short novel relates the unhappy lot of the Rohbesons, whose eleven-year-old daughter, Roberta, is forced to accompany her psychopath father on a bloody blacktop crime spree. Five years later, Roberta narrates that tale in diary-like form, alternating with episodes from her own teen angst-filled struggles for acceptance and escape. Her memories of the fateful 1967 road trip are initially, haltingly revealed to her new and only friend Vicky, circa 1972. Garish, hideous Vicky employs what Roberta calls "dazzle camouflage" (her father's Navy slang), causing "confusions so horror-bright that the eyeballs would get upset to where they refused to see." By contrast, Roberta, a self-described "dog," is "her opposite in every single way," adding, "I am about as detailed as a shadow." Together, these two outcasts begin a school-skipping back-yard odyssey through trash-strewn lots and darkened streets. Vicky acts as Roberta's guide and mentor, initiating her into the pleasures of cigarettes, pot, makeup, and a peculiar strain of chocolate mescaline known as "The Creeper." Roberta journeys into a suburban underworld of drug deals, nosy cops, vicious dogs, and furtive make-out sessions, meeting such fellow misfits as Turtle and The Great Wesley, two amiably grandiloquent stoners, and Vicky's sad, dreamy brother The Stick. They, too, become her confidantes and audience as she episodically recounts her father's rampage. Roberta's mother is no charmer, either, a spiteful harridan who bullies her two daughters—one by another man—when she isn't trolling for sugar daddies. Yet, paradoxically, Roberta sides with her father, ignoring chances for escape during their travels and reflecting, "There were so many good things that should have happened to the father. He wasn't your average man. He wasn't meant to live in an average world." (Roberta distances herself from both parents with the definite article, hence "the father," Raymond, and "the mother"—whose name we never learn.) Thus, Cruddy could be termed a novel of dysfunctional family romance, of the charged relations and strange connections that bond and fray. Roberta says of her family, "we are knife people"—a clan of butchers and meatcutters who grant more affectionate names to their favorite knives than to their children. But try as she might, she can't easily short-circuit what she calls "the father wire" within her, even as she worries about not being able "to stop the blood of time past from infecting the blood of time future." As with her past work, Barry sets her tale among society's outcasts, pariahs, and losers, in a world of downward mobility and squalid poverty described in minute detail. Cruddy is full of rot, decay, tattered surfaces, and endlessly circling flies. Why this preoccupation? During a beating, Roberta recalls, "I was concentrating on the molecules because I have learned that concentrating on the smallest things can provide a distraction, an escape hole, to disappear down." Drugs also intensify this microscopic focus, but can't alter her abject self-image. "I am also a corroded person," she says. "Extremely corroded." Roberta travels across an unrelentingly grim landscape, recalling how through car windows she "watched the land change like it had a mental illness." Yet she remembers occasional "moments when life was good and decent"— smoking, drinking, and driving across a featureless white desert while her murderous father dozes in back. All this bleakness, violence, and self-loathing are described with Barry's unmistakable vocabulary—blork, bummy, scruddy, skorkish, skag, skanky—forming a veritable lexicon of disgust. She also fondly references Seattle touchstones of the early '70s: Dag's, Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, Jay Jacobs, Hec Ed, and the ominous Aurora Bridge. Cruddy is an illustrated novel, of course, featuring a crude, disturbing black-and-white daubing style unlike the jittery line drawings of Barry's cartoon work. Her wonderful frontis- and endspiece maps recall the adventure novels of childhood, only here the key denotes symbols for "all the places where we got high," and "places where there was blood," and "dead people we left behind"—hardly the stuff of Nancy Drew. In all her work, Barry respects the self-dramatizing intensity of girls on the cusp of adolescence. Roberta's diary is the product of an overheated imagination shaped by gory urban folklore and cheesy old horror movies from TV's "Nightmare Theater." It could be a put-on, a way of getting back at her mother or sister, or a legitimate means of atonement for crimes first hinted at, later described. Her self-aware account directly addresses the reader, as when Roberta catalogues her many nicknames: "Roberta, Clyde, Eegore, Mystery Child, Michelle, then Roberta again, and recently Hillbilly Woman." She recognizes the tenuousness of her identity—the eternal drama of adolescence. Cruddy belongs to a genre that might be called trailer-park gothic, where the horrors of poverty and parental ignorance, neglect, and violence are visited upon their children—who sometimes become monsters themselves. The seeds of such violence are suggested in Barry's more benign first novel The Good Times Are Killing Me—now reprinted by Sasquatch —where family turmoil leaves only emotional scars (unlike Roberta's very real wounds). Yet there, as in Cruddy, Barry's smart, damaged heroines can try to mend at least some of childhood's injuries by telling their own stories.

 
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