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[whitespace] Cruddy Dirty Thoughts: Hardly a surface in Cruddy isn't covered with mud, alcohol, dead bugs, blood or some other gruesome substance.

Freaks and Geeks

Lynda Barry draws her gaze toward family dysfunction

By Fiona Morgan

Lynda Barry has been drawing stories for almost 20 years. She grew up in Seattle and attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., with her friend Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, Futurama and the hilarious, dark Life in Hell comic strip. At school, Groening helped launch Barry's nationally syndicated comic strip, Ernie Pook's Comeek, which follows the adventures of two sisters, attention-seeking Marlys and painfully self-aware Maybonne.

Barry's comic-strip books, such as My Perfect Life and The Freddie Stories, read like novels full of intricate pictures and handwritten text. Everyone secretly loves books with pictures, and Barry's books are addictive. Her novels are just as visual as her comics and only because each features some 50-odd illustrations, done in her signature unpolished style. Whatever her medium, the message manifests itself similarly.

Like Groening's work, Barry's comic art approaches difficult subjects--such as abuse, suicide, racism and the general madness of family relationships--with a playful, intelligent humor and an eye for detail that captures the deepest anxieties. She has a canny ability to get inside the head of confused teenage and preteen girls and tell their stories with a raw, funny and authentic voice that beguiles the depth of their insight and the intricacy of their stories.

Barry's first novel, The Good Times Are Killing Me, about two middle-school-aged girls whose friendship is torn up by the racial tensions at their school, was later made into an off-Broadway play. Cruddy, her second novel, is the darkest of her stories to date.

Narrated by 16-year-old Roberta Rohbeson, Cruddy is a rambunctious story of a girl trying to survive life on the wrong side of the logging road. She begins to confess a bloody trip with her father to recover buried suitcases full of money only after getting grounded for dropping two of 127 hits of acid in her friend's shoe. Her adventures with new friend Vicky Talluso (an exciting girl who wears too much makeup) are interwoven with the crazed tale of multiple murders, corrupt cops, many bottles of Old Skull Popper and a trip to an eerie place called Dreamland in the Nevada desert.

Much of Roberta's story reads like a grittier, more violent version of Catcher in the Rye, though Barry claims she wasn't thinking about the classic when she wrote Cruddy. The biggest influences on Roberta's twisted family tale are, instead, Grimms' and Andersen's fairy tales and monster movies--as evidenced by the freaks and weirdoes of every persuasion scattered throughout the novel. "I like freaks a lot," Barry explains. "I like the action they provide, the unexpectedness in conversation."

Then there is the gore--hardly a surface in Cruddy isn't covered with mud, alcohol, dead bugs, blood or some other gruesome substance, right down to Roberta's beloved dog's mangy dermatitis.

Perhaps another echo of her love for grisly fairy tales, Barry has created a plenitude of bad families in her works. She ventures that--contrary to Leo Tolstoy's maxim--all unhappy families are unhappy in the same way. "They are caught in an eddy that usually swirls around one very crazy person, usually a parent, sometimes both parents, but the thing that is true about all unhappy families is that they stay in the same place, a bad solar system with too much g-force and miserable gasses. I can't believe how many people can be held in place by one lunatic!"

In Cruddy, the lunatic is Roberta's father, a former Navy man who comes from a family of meat packers. His fantastic lies and constant schemes involve then-11-year-old Roberta in remarkably psychotic ways. There is a certain thrill in the father's murderous escapades that's like the thrill of horror flicks, and he eggs her on to be "Navy all the way."

Barry's deft articulation of torn loyalties and fear cuts to the heart of the adolescent inner life. "One of the things I can never stand hearing people say is that children are resilient," Barry says. "I don't think children are resilient at all. The price of trauma is enormous." Extreme as it may be in Roberta's case, that cruddy feeling is universal: Bad things in our pasts swell up like monsters under the bed.

As often happens in Barry's stories, her teenage confidants offer solace and sanity in the restrictive world of adult damage. Roberta's drug-addled escapades with Vicky and a gaggle of strange boys allow her to go through teenage discoveries of friendship, sex and romance with people just as confused as she is.

Barry's main characters, like Roberta, are almost always children and teenagers trying to make sense of the world. Although she's not one to offer an analysis of her books or anyone else's ("I never was one who did very well in book discussions," she confesses), Barry says that kids make the most interesting characters because they're active and use their imaginations. "It's pretty easy to write a story about a person who is doing things instead of just thinking things."

Barry, 43, hasn't lost any of her childish spirit. She likes being friends with kids, is interested in what interests them and "likes spiders and monsters and making and destroying things." She says creative work is very much like building mud-puddle villages in her old Seattle backyard. "Play usually has in it some sort of peril and danger to be overcome. So do stories." c

Lynda Barry will be at the Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., on Sept. 22 for a reading and book signing. 415.863.8688

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From the September 13, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.