Cruddy by Lynda Barry (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Cruddy by Lynda Barry.The book starts with a suicide note, addressed to “Anyone Who Finds This.” The book, in fact, is a sort of extended suicide note; since she’s about to die, Roberta Rohbeson can finally tell the truth about that road trip with her father. She’s never told anyone before. Now she’s going to tell you.

Roberta is sixteen, living in “a cruddy rental house” with her mom and her sister. The book intersperses chapters detailing her sixteen-year-old life with descriptions of the fateful road trip five years earlier. There’s copious abuse and trauma in both narratives, but Roberta is a fighter. She can find a way out of any situation, however harrowing.

The book is hard to read at times, written in a trippy, adolescent style. The style fits the subject, but it’s still an acquired taste. Take this paragraph as example:

He looked very relaxed laying on his back in the straw. He seemed to be somewhere around our age, a little older maybe, and he was looking very much like a typical glue-sniffer dropout. The extreme relaxation of the guy was interesting to me. A very fat fly lifted itself and made a worn-out buzzing sound and flew a lopsided circle around his face. He followed it with his eyes and said, “Not now.”

The book is full of abuse in many forms: casual, intentional, emotional, homicidal. In the end, we’re led to believe, Roberta kills herself––that’s it. No one grows, nobody learns anything. Maybe that’s the point.

Last Night at the Viper Room, by Gavin Edwards (It Books, 2013)

Cover of Last Night at the Viper Room, by Gavin Edwards.I’ve never seen a River Phoenix movie.* After reading this book, I’m not sure I want to. Not because he sounds untalented, but because this book hints at the darker side of Hollywood that’s now coming to light.

Let me clarify. Edwards never says that Phoenix abused, or was abused, by anyone in Hollywood. A few situations detailed in the book seem…dicey, to put it charitably, but there’s plenty of disturbing content here without stooping to speculation.

River Phoenix was born into the Children of God cult, which preached and practiced child sexual abuse. River lost his virginity at age four. It was okay, he insisted later in life; “I took a vow of chastity from ten to fourteen.” The family (then the Bottoms––yes, they named their son “River Bottom”) lived as missionaries in Venezuela, where River and his siblings sometimes sang on the street to earn money. His parents were either too brainwashed, dissociated, or unaware of the abuse to leave after River’s early experiences in the cult.

The Bottoms eventually left the Children of God and moved to Hollywood. They changed their last name to “Phoenix,” symbolizing a new beginning. River wanted to change the world through music, though he took some acting jobs to make money for the family. As time passed, he decided that he could also change the world through acting.

Phoenix co-starred in Stand by Me with Jerry O’Connell, Wil Wheaton, and Corey Feldman. This section is hard reading, given Feldman’s descriptions of endemic sexual abuse that he endured as a young actor. Did his costars suffer the same fate? Was River seen as an “easy target,” given his background? Last Night… doesn’t say, but these unanswered questions cast a shadow over the entire book. Even potentially innocent comments, such as River’s (and Corey’s) agent comparing child actors to meat, look more sinister in light of the scandals now engulfing Hollywood.

By all accounts, River Phoenix was a gentle and kind person until the last six months of his life, when his addictions consumed him. I felt sorry for him, but mostly I felt angry at all the people who failed him, both through action and inaction.

 

*Since writing this, I’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was a good actor. I’m still not sure I want to see any more.