Lynda Barry's illustrated novel Cruddy
has not one but three equally alarming openings. The first is a suicide note: "Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs." The next is a description of the lurid crucifix that hangs over the narrator's bed: "Some nights looking at him scares me so bad I can hardly move and I start doing a prayer for protection. But when the thing that is scaring you is already Jesus, who are you supposed to pray to?" The third is worthy of a nightmare fairytale, beginning "Once upon a cruddy time on a cruddy street on the side of a cruddy hill in the cruddiest part of a crudded-out town in a cruddy state, country, world, solar system, universe..."
She's not exaggerating. It's 1971, and 16-year-old Roberta Rohbeson lives in what looks very much like hell. It's five years after the Lucky Chief Motel Massacre, after which Roberta was found wandering the desert, covered with blood and clutching her dog, Cookie, who suffers from "incurable skin problems." Even now, Roberta still won't talk about what happened. She lives with her mother and sister on the aforementioned cruddy street, hides in the weeds during her lunch period, and eventually befriends some suicidal misfits like herself. The novel intercuts their chemically enhanced adventures with scenes from a gore-filled road trip taken five years before. Hint No. 1: Roberta's father used to run a slaughterhouse. Hint No. 2: The maps inside the front covers have keys that read "Dead People We Left Behind" and "Places There Were Blood."
Barry came to fame as a cartoonist, and though the humor in her strip Ernie Pook's Comeek is dark, nothing in it could prepare her fans for the sheer horror of Cruddy. The novel is funny, sort of, as long as you think naming a knife Little Debbie is funny, or lines like "A man who has been dead for a week in a hot trailer looks more like a man than you would first expect." What's more, it's compulsively, almost harrowingly, readable, written with the kind of velocity that makes you keep turning pages even when you don't want to. Despite the hallucinogenic quality of the violence around her, Roberta is never anything less than real, and her story will strike chords in anyone whose childhood was marked by ugliness and fear. Cruddy may be a bad acid trip, but if you can stomach the ride, it's a very good book. --Mary Park
From Library Journal
Barry, whose recent graphic novel, The Freddie Stories, took as its subject the dysfunctional family from her newspaper cartoon strip, now takes us into the head of an indomitable 16-year-old. Roberta Rohbeson lives with her mother and half-sister, Julie, in a crumbling neighborhood overlooking a garbage-filled ravine. Roberta's energetic voice carries us along two story-lines. In one, Roberta and a classmate, Vicky, cut school and meet up with a series of low-life young men. Simultaneously, Roberta provides us with a running account of a cross-country crime spree with her father when she was 11. This trip involves three suitcases full of money, lots of alcohol, gore, putrefaction, and some of the most desolate, godforsaken locales in modern fiction. It also contains more violence than this reader can usually tolerate, yet Roberta's wacky, irrepressible outlook makes her story fresh, compelling, and sometimes hilarious. Does Roberta survive? All I can say is, she gets my vote as one of the all-time great unreliable narrators. Recommended for most fiction collections.AReba Leiding, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA
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