The New York Review of Books
A Knife at the Door
"Lit: A Memoir"
by Mary Karr
Harper, 386 pp., $25.99
In an introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition of her memoir "The Liars' Club" (1995), Mary Karr recalls the enthusiasm that it inspired when it first appeared:
At the peak of the first book's selling cycle, when it hovered at number two on The New York Times bestseller list for months...I got four hundred to five hundred letters a week....
Reading "Liars' Club" seemed to crowbar open something in people. "Your book just dredged up so many memories..." Or, "After reading 'Liars' Club,' my brother and I have reconciled..." Or, "I've been writing down some of what we went through when my father came back from Vietnam..."
This is a writer's dream response, what I'd hankered for as a kid setting crayon to cardboard on Mother's Day--to plug a reader into some wall outlet deep in the personal psychic machine that might jumpstart him or her into a more feeling way of life.
It's easy to understand why so many people were drawn to Karr's book. She is a gifted storyteller who can make horrific events seem grotesquely funny without minimizing the pain and fear they caused, and the stories she tells in "The Liars' Club" are fascinating and appalling. Her mother, who married seven times, was a frustrated artist from west Texas whose alcoholism was briefly ameliorated by a flirtation with methamphetamines, and whose incarceration in a mental hospital followed an incident involving her two small daughters and a butcher knife. Karr's decent, hard-drinking father, a union man who worked at a Gulf Oil refinery, watched helplessly as his wife descended into madness; after the family moved from Texas to Colorado, she divorced him to wed a bartender "with a crocodile grin" named Hector. Karr's maternal grandmother, a chilly soul who insisted that her grandchildren weren't being treated harshly enough, joined the household just in time to die a gruesome death, and Karr's early encounters with the opposite sex were, to put it mildly, unhappy. At seven, she was raped by a playmate and later forced to perform oral sex on a baby-sitter.
Yet what makes these distressing accounts seem forgiving and bemused rather than bitter and accusatory is Karr's tone, which alternates high lyricism with a raunchy cowboy noir reminiscent of the snappiness with which Richard Widmark and Sterling Hayden spit out their lines in vintage westerns. "At some point the talk got heated," she writes, describing the encounter between her father and one of her mother's previous husbands, "and Paolo called Mother a strumpet, for which Daddy was said to have stomped a serious mudhole in Paolo's ass." If Karr's memoirs read like novels, it's because their author uses so many novelistic techniques: switching into present tense for immediacy, structuring her narrative so that it circles back to key events, dramatizing scenes with persuasive detail and direct dialogue, alternating horror and humor, and, most important, turning the people around her into characters.
Even as Karr adopts the perspective of her younger self, dwarfed and shadowed by the towering figures of Mother and Daddy, she finds ingenious ways of introducing reassuring glimmers of retrospect, alluding to writers, from Homer to Elizabeth Bishop, whom little Mary Marlene was yet to encounter. Ultimately, the book's achievement, and perhaps the reason why "The Liars' Club" so affected its readers, is that Karr has created a testament to the constancy, the strength, and the validity of the child's love, however mingled with disappointment and even contempt, for the feckless or injurious parent.
If "The Liars' Club" gives the impression of having been concocted of some volatile substance bottled up under pressure and abruptly released, then the stream of memories in its sequel, "Cherry" (2000), seems channeled to trickle evenly into the palms of its fans. Karr's apparent desire to make her second autobiographical volume more inclusive than its predecessor results in some mystifying stylistic choices. Much of it is written in the second person ("By the time your mother walks in less than an hour later, you're kneeling on the cold floor tiles emptying the emptiness from your stomach into the small white emptiness of the wastebasket in your room"), though one might suppose a memoir, by definition, derives its authority from the intimacy and authenticity of the first-person point of view.
Early on, Karr cites a childhood diary entry in which she charts a "career path" that will involve writing "1/2 poetry and 1/2 autobiography," and "Cherry"'s efforts toward the poetic can have distracting results, as does this catalog of the thoughts that cross the future memoirist's mind during her first kiss:
Suddenly, I know so much. I understand about waves and cross tides and how jellyfish float and why rivers empty themselves in the Gulf. I understand the undulating movement of the stingray on "Sea Hunt" and the hard forward muscle of the shark.... I let myself breathe into him a breath that tastes like ashes from a long fire.
Still, the unfettered energy of "The Liars' Club" comes through as Karr describes bouts of preadolescent self-consciousness and erotic longing, tentative experiments with sex, the romance of girls' friendships, and the pain of a friend's betrayal.
"Lit," the third installment of Karr's memoir, takes up where "Cherry" ends. Its opening is framed as an "Open Letter to My Son," Dev, whom Karr portrays throughout as a person of remarkable sweetness, sensitivity, and depth. Within a few paragraphs, Karr's language informs readers alert to the language of recovery that she is not only introducing a book, but making amends:
However long I've been granted sobriety, however many hours I logged in therapists' offices and the confessional, I've still managed to hurt you, and not just with the divorce when you were five, with its attendant shouting matches and slammed doors.
Just as my mother vanished from my young life into a madhouse, so did I vanish when you were a toddler.
Those two sentences exemplify Karr's method and her particular skill. We believe she means every word, fiercely dredging up memories, however wrenching to revisit. At the same time she's keeping a cool eye on what makes a story work. These well-chosen phrases are not only a confession but a summary that functions like a film trailer, touching on the high points of the plot to follow. In addition they recapitulate "The Liars' Club"'s pivotal event, the madhouse stay precipitated by Mother's torching the family possessions, threatening her daughters with a knife, and phoning the local authorities to say she had killed her children. For readers of the earlier book, this reference will serve as a signpost indicating their return to familiar territory. Yet Dev's early reference to a videotape of his grandmother discussing her dramatic crack-up, and the news that he has read Karr's account of it, don't feel intended solely to refresh her fans' memories, or to bring new readers up to speed. Karr can't get over that vision of Mother and the butcher knife. And, one might ask, who could?
Karr's chronicle of her effort to reconstruct the self that Mother so effectively, if unintentionally, dismantled resumes, in "Lit," with her leaving Texas and lighting out for California with her druggy surfer buddies; it's one of many potentially risky moves that scare her into wanting something safer. Here the cautionary event is a wild ride in a black VW with a "satanic hobo" wearing his dead twin brother's finger in a pouch, a God-haunted backwoods doper who seems to have followed Karr from home or escaped from the pages of Flannery O'Connor. Disenchanted with Beach Boy culture, Karr applies, and is admitted, to a midwestern college, mostly, she tells us, on the strength of a recommendation from a professor who feels her breasts and declares, "By God, they're real! " En route to school, she reads aloud to her mother from Gabriel García Márquez. Stopping at a motel, Karr passes out from drinking ("my first blackout") while her mother stays awake to finish "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
A conflicted mother-daughter leave-taking prompts Karr to reflect on the folly of having imagined that she could so simply evade "the silky shadow" of Mother. But almost as soon as her mother drives away, something striking happens to the narrative, and as that shadow recedes, we get some of the most interesting sections in this book or its predecessors. The pace grows more relaxed, the approach more measured and thoughtful. Karr sheds the frenetic impulse to entertain the reader with progressively more outrageous tales. If not entirely silenced, her demons seem subdued by the move from the infernal Texas town to the cooler climate of a Minneapolis liberal arts college.
Karr lucks into helpful teachers, beginning with a psychology professor who first suggests the possibility that people can treat each other with generosity and kindness. Her account of a poetry workshop conducted by Etheridge Knight conveys the excitement a young artist feels on meeting an older person who seems to shine with the pure light of art. And Knight's use of the vernacular convinces the young poet that she need not wholly abandon the colorful locutions of her childhood. "(Knight's) language both rocked me back and echoed how Daddy talked. I mean, if he thought I was persisting in something I couldn't get done, he'd say, You keep trying to thread a noodle up that wildcat's ass." We're only a few dozen pages into "Lit," but already the narrative voice has so thoroughly shed its twang and its BB-gun delivery that this evocation of Daddy's language may cause "The Liars' Club"'s readers to realize how much that book represented an act of ventriloquism: the poet and university instructor projecting her adult consciousness through the bad-ass tough-talk of the feisty Texas child.
Both selves, and both voices, haunt Karr's marriage to a poet from an old New England family, the handsome but undemonstrative Warren Whitbread (places and people are rechristened with Dickensian appropriateness), whom she meets in the Vermont graduate program where she has been studying with writers including Raymond Carver and Louise Glück. After the couple moves to Cambridge, Karr astutely observes the difference between her Texas roots and her new life in Massachusetts. Shocked by the frigid nastiness of her in-laws, she observes that "in my house, cruelty was rarely so deliberate, more often the haphazard side effect of being shitfaced."
Nothing at the Whitbreads is haphazard. From the moment she arrives at "Fairweather Hall," upsetting the Irish maid with a warm hello embrace, Karr misses social cues and violates tiny but all-important points of etiquette. "Little did I know my mother's advice--You can never wear too much mascara--is, in this company, deeply wrong." Every word and gesture is monitored and judged. Later, Warren admits that his sister, alarmed by Karr's borrowed luggage, warned him "that a girl with such fancy luggage might expect to live higher on the hog than a poet would." Meanwhile, everything Karr notices, from the tomato plants in the Whitbreads' garden to the lunch her son's classmate brings to his Cambridge nursery school, sets off tremors of class resentment. When Dev offers to swap his peanut butter and jelly for another boy's brie and kiwi fruit sandwich, "Jonathan cupped one hand around it.... His next sentence was so remarkable, I noted it down in my journal: I first had this sandwich in Vienna...."
The marriage, which has started crumbling even before Dev's arrival, cracks beneath the burdens that a baby brings. Though Warren loves his son, he's reluctant to help with the tedious work of childrearing, and he goes for jogs and takes naps at critical moments when major events--a birth, a funeral--are happening. Slowly, then more rapidly, and for many reasons--loneliness, professional frustration, fear for her marriage, domestic boredom, and the legacy of those years with Mother and Daddy--Karr's drinking escalates until she is hiding bottles around the house, lying about her habit, vowing to quit, quitting, starting again. Perhaps coincidentally, her mother renounces alcohol completely. "Mother's recovery dovetailed with the start of my own years' long binge.... I drank in increasing amounts, as if our gene pool owed the universe at least one worthless drunk at a time." Karr passes out, tries therapy, attends AA meetings, stays sober for ninety days. Then at a dinner after a poetry reading she's given at Harvard, a delicious martini overwhelms her fragile resolve, and she nearly wrecks her car on the drive home.
Karr steers the tone of her narrative between poles of dark and light, but otherwise these chapters don't depart much from the sort of testimony AA offers daily in church basements. Which may be Karr's point, and one on which the recovering drinkers who advise and encourage her would concur: every story of addiction is essentially the same. For those readers who seek, in books, a mirror in which to contemplate their own troubled past, these passages may generate the most recognition and comfort of any in the memoir. But ultimately, self-help fails Karr, whose decline accelerates until her increasingly matter-of-fact preparations for suicide convince her to check herself into a mental institution with a literary pedigree of former patients, including Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. Sensitive to the parallels between her life and her mother's, Karr weeps over the damage she fears she is doing to her son, until, during one of his visits, she is consoled by the thought that this is only "a single instant in his life amid a zillion other instants with attendant feelings--love, curiosity, desire."
In "Lit"'s final section, Karr outmaneuvers her private devils in an old-fashioned way: with the help of God. During the worst of her drinking, she'd acknowledged the power of prayer:
I know people needier and way more deserving have prayed far harder for stuff they needed more: to feed starving children, say, to get a negative biopsy result. Nonetheless, it's a stone fact that--within a week or so of my starting to pray--a man I don't know calls me from the Whiting Foundation to give me a thirty-five-thousand-dollar prize I hadn't applied for.
Faith does seem determined to show Karr the sophisticated hydraulics with which it can move mountains. After the Whiting Foundation reception, she regales her fellow dinner guests with Mother's latest exploits; the host, a literary agent, gives Karr her business card in case she decides to turn her family stories into a memoir. Karr's belief in the importance of prayer grows as, together with her son, she visits a succession of churches until she is fortunate enough to meet a charming and intelligent trio of spiritual advisers (a monk, a nun, a fellow writer) who guide her into becoming a practicing Catholic. "It isn't the ritual of the high Mass that impresses me, but the people--their collective surrender. If I can't do reverence to that, how dead are my innards?"
Believers and nonbelievers have long been drawn to confessions, like Saint Augustine's, that read like dispatches from the knock-down drag-out encounter between God and the stubborn sinner. "Lit," which probably takes its title from the notion that Karr's salvation--and her sobriety--comes both from her love for literature and her spiritual enlightenment, is one of those. Doubting and wisecracking all the way, Karr succumbs to Christ. She neither moralizes nor proselytizes. Whether we understand it, or like it, or not, this is what happened to her. Perhaps some readers may be tempted to try her solution, while others will find themselves grumpily resisting her spiritual godfather's less-than-persuasive response to her sensible concerns about Saint Paul: "You think Paul's conversion made him some rich cult leader? That's a laugh. He essentially resigned a CPA job to ride with the Hells Angels."
As Karr the seeker is making room for God, Karr the writer is tying up the loose ends of her story. She and her sister travel to Colorado, where the saddest parts of "The Liars' Club" are set, hoping to test their memories against what few landmarks remain. She spends time with Mother, whose aging and diminution Karr's readers will have witnessed over three books. What's happened to Mother is touching, but, like Karr's, our indelible image of her is still that lunatic in the doorway. During a sort of coda, a minor miracle or coincidence involving biblical texts causes Karr to feel a mystical tie to her past:
When you've been hurt enough as a kid (maybe at any age), it's like you have a trick knee. Most of your life, you can function like an adult, but add in the right portions of sleeplessness and stress and grief, and the hurt, defeated self can bloom into place....
Maybe all any of us wants is to feel singled out for some long, sweet, quenching draft of love, some open-throated guzzling of it--like what a baby gets at the breast. The mystery of the Bible passages, marked just for me, does that.
We want Karr to find what she's looking for, and for her story to end well. Her religion is not of the mannerly, hygienic variety, nor is it the hypermuscular sort that steals indigenous people's gold or whips up a Crusade. Even skeptics will agree that her conversion works a positive change: it's an invitation to "enter the presence of the numinous" and a source of comfort that allows her to close her eyes without seeing Mother in the doorway, brandishing that knife.
Read more at the New York Review of Books website.