[This review originally appeared in 2009 at another site.]
On a September night in 1971, a few days after getting busted for dropping acid, a sixteen-year-old curls up in the corner of her ratty bedroom and begins to write.
Now the truth can finally be revealed about the mysterious day long ago when the authorities found a child, calmly walking in the boiling desert, covered with blood.
The girl is Roberta Rohbeson, and her rant against a world bounded by “the cruddy top bedroom of a cruddy rental house on a very cruddy mud road” soon becomes a detailed account of another story, one that she has kept silent since she was eleven.
These stories, the backbone of Roberta’s short life, include a one-way trip across America fueled by revenge and greed and a vivid cast of characters, starring Roberta’s dangerous father, the owners of the Knocking Hammer Bar-cum-slaughterhouse, and runaway adolescents.
Dear basement noir crazies,
Oh, have I got a book for you. Holy hell, do I have a book for you. For the four readers who trust my word, they should just go out now and get a copy of Cruddy by Lynda Barry. For the other 12 that comprise the rest of my audience, read on.
Lynda Barry is a well known independent comic writer who did the long-running strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek that ran in alt weekly’s across the country. She came up with Matt Groening and generally eschewed potential opportunities to take her work to a more commercial level. This book, however, isn’t a comic; it’s a novel with some illustrations. It is an amazing piece of dark fiction that essentially boils down to a 300+ page suicide note.
There are two concurrently running storylines/timelines. The current timeline is in 1971, and Roberta, the 16-year-old main character and protag, is starting a drug-fueled night. Over the course of this timeline, which starts off as a rant against the world, she will begin to relay her story from 5 years earlier, the second timeline. The earlier timeline involves her going on a violent cross-country road trip with her father to collect inheritance money that he felt was wrongfully given to other relatives. This road trip leaves as high a body count as you are likely to find elsewhere and ends in carnage. The bloody aftermath slingshots the reader back to the beginning of the book, which, at the same time, has been telling us all along that she hasn’t turned out all right despite surviving all she’s been through. This is yet another punch to the reader. Then to top it all off, in the current timeline Roberta kills herself.
I swear to God, it’s hard for me to remember reading another book that is as uncompromising in its brutality as Cruddy is. But wrapped up inside of all this brutality is a wicked and black sense of humor that keeps the reader chuckling while the asylum burns to the ground.
Through it all Barry so nails the voice of Roberta; as the story is filtered through her experience, it adopts a bent, slightly surreal quality at times, like it was written through a fish-eye lens. She becomes an empathetic character who is oddly touching.
Barry is often quick to point out that people believe that children are strong. That they are flexible, adaptable and are capable of maintaining a great weight (whether emotional or psychic or mental). Barry maintains that children aren’t strong and are more likely to come away damaged. And Roberta is as damaged a protag as you are likely to find.
Cruddy does get off to a bit of a shaky start, though, as the reader has to get used to Roberta’s voice and the first three chapters are all beginnings. The very end is rendered with a technique that is perhaps too unnecessarily clever for its own good. But these complaints are minor and are easily forgotten once the story proper kicks in.
Cruddy is bloody, insane, funny, violent, bleak, stark, brutal, and dark. Go read it and be amazed.
PS – You’ve got to love a book that is described as “part Easy Rider and part bipolar Wizard of Oz” and then lives up to the description.
[I’ll be gathering Friday’s Forgotten links for Patti today so if you have one let me know.
Summary of other reviews:
Steve Lewis and friends