Dec 29, 1999 at 12:00 am

Lynda Barry's second novel opens with a tour de force of disaffection, a portrait of adolescent alienation so pronounced it might knock the wind out of you if it weren't so funny. Sixteen-year-old Roberta Rohbeson lives with her mother and 11-year-old sister in a depressing rental house "on a cruddy street on the side of a cruddy hill in the cruddiest part of a crudded-out town," circa 1971. In the wake of a severe drug episode that has gotten her grounded for a year, Roberta sits in her bedroom penning a rant about her life, which she plans to end when she finishes writing.

But it's not her rage that so perfectly captures what it means to be Roberta; it's her resignation. In a voice that mixes teen-drama artifice with matter-of-fact artlessness, Barry sketches the depth of Roberta's dislocation in a crazy quilt of offhand detail—the way she refers to her parents as "the mother" and "the father," or notes that everyone in her muddy, trashy neighborhood smokes, including herself and her sister. "It's hard not to smoke here," she observes. There are horrors aplenty to come in Cruddy, a novel with a body count rivaling that of a splatter flick, but none are so chilling as that single weary line, reverberating with the brutal truth of being 16 and trapped.

This is familiar terrain for Barry, whose long-running comic strip Ernie Pook's Comeek, which appears in some 40 weekly papers (including this one), often focuses on the dark side of youth. (Sasquatch Books has just released an excellent Pook compilation, The Freddie Stories.) But the author is working a considerably darker side here. Roberta's tale unrolls along two tracks, alternating between 1971, when a pushy classmate named Vicky Talluso and a wan stoner called Turtle introduce her into the world of drugs and sex, and 1967, when an 11-year-old Roberta found herself accompanying her abusive, alcoholic, but strangely alluring father on a murderous cross-country rampage in search of three suitcases stuffed with cash, an inheritance from the defunct family meat-packing business that Raymond Rohbeson figures belongs to him.

It's an interesting metaphorical gambit, metastasizing the terror and confusion of childhood into a literal nightmare journey across a corpse-scarred landscape, and Barry nearly pulls it off. Cruddy is sensationally written and refreshingly, uniquely weird, with an extraordinary ear for the rhythms of teenage patois and a deadpan delivery that makes nervous black comedy of all manner of awfulness, as in Roberta's account of the father's encounter with a supply of homemade hooch:

He finished the first jug of Corpse Reviver and instead of knocking him down, it made him precise and activated. He was just rattling with expanding action, taking smaller and smaller roads, looking for the right place along the irrigation canal to kill me.

But eventually the novel's gory grotesquerie grows wearying. Barry dwells on physical ugliness, obsesses over putrefaction and flies and stench, returns over and over again to spasms of bloodletting and the comfortable melodrama of teen suicide. So do many teens, of course, and Roberta/ Barry's obsessions make for some powerful imagery. But the author draws from these wells too often, creating an emotional distance that's hard for the reader to traverse. Even at its darkest and saddest, Barry's comic strip resonates with humanity. But the ultimate sentiment behind Cruddy seems to be nothing more nor less than Raymond's dry observation as he surveys the results of one last killing spree: "Can you believe this world of shit?"