by Mary Karr
Lit, the new memoir by Mary Karr, is a book to be inhaled and imbibed, a fitting fate for a story about falling down a bottle and the slippery climb back up to some version of sanity and grace. Read the book all at once to feel its full impact, as you encounter the older, yet not wiser, Mary, moving on from the frightened, brassy, and lost girl in The Liar's Club and Cherry.
In Lit, we pick up where Cherry left off, in her late adolescence, a crusty, naive, and wandering girl in search of respectability when she's not numb from alcohol or some other drug. As she journeys almost by accident into her early literary and poet life, she marries a handsome patrician East Coast man whose family is old money ushering her into the world of upper class well-to-do, swigging hope to abandon her gritty Texas shame. Her father, whom she loved and adored, disappeared into the bottle, and her mother had tried to kill her children with a butcher knife in a psychotic fit.
Karr writes her adult self with the laconic wit she's known for, putting in parentheses the moments where even she can't bear to write flat-footed about her own ignorance, willful meanness, and ignorant wounds she inflicts on her husband and then her son, Dev, who's an appealing and significant force in the book. In fact, her prologue is written in the form of a letter to him.
The author chronicles, lurches rather, into the deeper rings of hell of her alcoholism, seething with self-hatred. Even her stumbling into AA and furtive prayers are not enough to stop her determined self-destruction, leading her inevitably to the thought of suicide which scares her enough to get admitted to the "Mental Marriot," a place where many famous poets have been locked up—Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, among others.
Karr's mother, finally sober after a lifetime of rollicking, psychotic drinking, is a curious yet lively character. The book moves through territory that is new to readers of Karr's previous work—how she became a published poet, her friendship with Tobias Wolff, and her eventual conversion to Catholicism. Particularly entertaining are her desperate attempts to learn to pray at first through clenched teeth while kneeling in front of a toilet, alternating prayers with curses, reluctant to accept the possibility of redemption. No matter what belief system one has, Mary makes it clear that her grudging nod to Christianity is no panacea nor is it a welcome or easy path. One day at a time, it's a path to some kind of inner peace.
One of the most moving passages is toward the end, a simple, direct conversation between Mary and her mother, where in a few sentences they meet eye to eye, apology to apology about their own humanness and their love. It is a heart-opening passage of mother and daughter facing each other in humility and truth.
Karr's book is a guide for memoir writers in making rib-aching confessions, how to write with poetry without gliding over the pebbles of reality that sting. It's also a bible of how to scrape tendrils of truth out of a lifetime of lies, and find yourself somewhat whole in the end, imperfect but still standing. This book lingers with you as you contemplate your own existence, and the road from darkness into light.
Mary Karr's first memoir, The Liar's Club, kick-started a memoir revolution and won nonfiction prizes from PEN and the Texas Institute of Letters. Her second memoir, Cherry, which was excerpted in The New Yorker, also hit bestseller and "notable book" lists at the New York Times and dozens of other papers nationwide. A Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, Karr has won Pushcart Prizes for both verse and essays. She is the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. Read more about her on the Syracuse University website.
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