Pilgrim’s Progress

Cherry

by Mary Karr
Viking, 276 pp., $24.95

My memory of eight surreal months in Beaumont, Texas, in 1961-1962, overlapping minimally with the time span chronicled by Mary Karr in The Liars’ Club (1995) and in her new sequel to that best-selling memoir, Cherry, is almost exclusively visceral. When the air is saturated with chemical smells—sickly sweet, acrid, like toxic-waste cherry syrup with a nasty undertone of sandpaper—you find it difficult to contemplate loftier subjects. Airborne pollution from oil refineries in this devastated East Texas landscape near the Louisiana border and north of the Gulf of Mexico, known without irony as the “Golden Triangle” (Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange), must have been close to the edge of human endurance; yet the area’s sense of itself was unfailingly upbeat, optimistic.

These were “boom times” for Texas refineries. Luridly apocalyptic sunsets (flamey-orange, bruised-plum-tinged-with-acid-green) were admired as aes-thetic bonuses—“In’t the sky gorgeous?” Urban areas technically known as cities seemed to have been but recently, and hastily, hacked out of the Big Thicket (pinewood, scrub trees), lacking any architectural distinction, lacking even centers, on a grid of railroad tracks, their poorly paved roads susceptible to dangerous flash floods. There was no cultural life in the Golden Triangle, or the acknowledgment of its absence, unless churchgoing (among whites, predominantly Baptist) constituted culture. One of my Beaumont memories is waiting in an overheated car in long lines at train crossings as freight trains rattled past endlessly. This was hurricane territory, gale-force winds blowing up from the Gulf, but nearly every day there were torrential rains. There was a gasoline-oily glisten to surfaces. I remember a dead, bloated steer lying on its side in a road, forcing traffic to drive around it. Everywhere were snakes, often dead, of an amazing length, run over and mashed on the pavement. At Lamar State College, new, cheaply built classroom buildings were windowless, like cinder-block cubes, air-conditioned to a temperature that set one’s teeth chattering. In the women’s lavatories (I can’t vouch for the men’s) toilets were rarely flushed, hands were rarely washed after the use of toilets. Everywhere were flying roaches of a species unknown in the North.

A young wife, I spent much of a night seated on a straight-back chair in the center of a carpetless floor, my knees drawn up to my chest, as my husband, armed with a flashlight and a shoe, bravely but mostly futilely set out to kill, or to rout, the army of glittering black roaches large as hummingbirds, and aggressive, that had swarmed, as if by magic, out of the upholstered furniture and beds in our newly rented house, as soon as night fell. My state of catatonic terror was not helpful to the situation, but Ihad no other.

Beyond such visceral impressions, the Golden Triangle held little charm. This was a brutally segregated society in which “Ne-gras” were presumed to be subhuman and, if resistant to that label, uppity and troublesome, dangerous. Yet the de facto apartheid of the region guaranteed …

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