What I’ve Been Reading: Lynda Barry’s CRUDDY

Some books about children are for children; Lynda Barry’s Cruddy is definitely not.

First, a warning: this book contains themes, sometimes graphic descriptions, of subjects and events which might be triggering to readers, including suicide, murder, child abuse, child sexual assault, racism, sexism, ableism, mistreatment of people with special needs, drug use, runaways, institutionalization, and animal abuse.

If you still want to give Cruddy a try after all of that… you should. It’s probably the best-written depiction of a troubled child’s life that I’ve ever read. It’s perfect in a lot of ways. It’s hard to read, because it unflinchingly flays open some of the worst things a child can go through, but it’s easy to read, too, because Barry writes clean. Her tone is even throughout; there are no missteps, no awkwardly written passages. You meet Roberta, the 16-year-old narrator, on the first page, and until the book closes, there’s nothing to kick you off the ride.

It’s a hell of a trip, though. Nothing about Roberta’s life is easy or comforting, and even what seems positive for a moment is only in comparison to how crushingly terrible everything else is. But that’s the thing about a life in desolation — little moments of joy that other people, happier people, with more good in their lives, that might never be noticed, instead take on a monumental property. A shared moment can be enough to pin a life on.

Barry makes sense of the little moments and the big ones, weaving them all together so well you barely notice which is which.

I wasn’t surprised by any of it, but I suspect that’s because my childhood was not very different from Roberta’s. Better in some ways, worse in others, with some parts in common, and other parts that didn’t have to be shared because the overall feeling of growing up unwanted, unliked, outside of everyone else: that, I recognize. For other readers, it might be too hard to keep turning the page. That’s okay. But if you can get through it, Cruddy is a masterclass in writing about survival, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation, from the perspective of a child whose parents (and their lack of parenting) made her a perpetual victim.  The story, Robert’as voice, feels real. It’s possible, probable, and tangible, even though we wish it couldn’t be.

Read it because you want to know what life is like for people with worse luck than your own. Read it because you want to know how to write terrible, unimaginable, darkness without losing a grip on the light. Read it because it is beautifully written, in a way that makes it appear simpler than it is, to make even those dark parts easier to digest.

Read it because though almost everything Roberta tells you about her life is bad, Cruddy is perfectly, solidly, good.

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