By Mary Karr
New York, Viking, 1995
Week 16 Memoir
When my brother first married at 19, he married into a household rife with dysfunction, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Years later, he commented, “How was I to know? We grew up in a great family--the Methodist Family of the Year, for God’s sake!” I felt that way too. There is no way that I could write a memoir of my crazy childhood, because it wasn’t crazy, but wonderful and filled with piano lessons and family picnics, and weeks at the cottage.
I like to read about crazy childhoods, however, and Mary Karr entertains and enlightens with scenes from two years of her childhood, 1961 when she was six and 1963 when she was eight, in her book, The Liar’s Club.
Reminiscent of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg, The Liar’s Club is about two extraordinarily bright little girls, Mary and Lecia, their mentally ill and alcoholic mother, Charlie, and their hard-working, storytelling dad, Pete. Scene one of the story takes place on the Gulf Coast of Texas; scene two in the mountains of Colorado. An epilogue of sorts fills in some of the gaps in their parent’s lives and takes place in 1980 back in Texas.
I rather like that Karr is able to summarize the gist of their childhood in those two years. They were pivotal years, to be sure. Lecia and Mary have to not only manage their lives, but they must manage the life of their mother, who we are led to believe spends her days in bed, reading, drinking, throwing screaming fits, and sometimes painting. If you were to ask her what her career was, she would tell you that she is an artist, and I do believe that in her saner moments she taught public school art. Some of Mary’s better moments are spent with her Dad at the American Legion, where he drinks, plays pool, and tells stories. In the second part of the book, the parents are separated, and Charlie and the girls are living in Colorado, where the girls have to step in to monitor arguments between Charlie and her boyfriend, Hector, as well as fend off drunken cowboys, who are hired to be the girls’ babysitters. Some very dark things happen--things you pray wouldn’t happen to little girls--and Lecia emerges as the stable, take-charge early-onset adult that she became. When things get too bad to bear, Lecia has the presence of mind to call her Daddy collect and tell him that he must get them and bring them back to Texas. The most touching scene in the book is when they are reunited with their Daddy, and they go to sleep listening to him cry as they all cuddle in the same bed.
This is the first of three memoirs that Mary Karr has written. Before this book, she was primarily known as a poet, and that is one of the things that makes this book a satisfying reading experience. Karr has a precise ear for the dialect of Texas, for the stories and commentary that make up her childhood, and a remarkable visual and auditory memory. She tells the story in a lyrical, romantic style that draws you in and keeps you reading. Salon.com calls this “one of the best books ever written about growing up female (or growing up, period) in America." Karr’s other memoirs are Cherry: A Memoir, and Lit: A Memoir. Lit was published just last year. Recently Entertainment Weekly rated The Liar’s Club as number four in the top one hundred books of the past twenty-five years.
I have to say that I liked this book, but I loved The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. However, I would like to hear Karr speak to see if she still talks the scrappy way she did as a child or the educated way of the college professor, which she is now.
Well, even though I will never be able to write an amazing, survivalist memoir of my childhood, I am constantly thankful that I had the love-filled empowering childhood that I did have. Thanks, Evelyn and Harry!
Here is an interview with Mary Karr on Salon.com shortly after she wrote The Liar’s Club.
A snippet of a review in the New York Times:
The title of the poet Mary Karr's extraordinary new memoir is taken from the name that came to be attached to the informal club formed by her father and his drinking buddies....Ms. Karr inherited her father's remarkable gift for storytelling, and she has used that gift to create one of the most dazzling and moving memoirs to come along in years....Her most powerful tool is her language, which she wields with the virtuosity of both a lyric poet and an earthy, down-home Texan.... She's able to describe everything ... with equal poise, precision and wit. It's a skill used in these pages in the service of a wonderfully unsentimental vision that redeems the past even as it recaptures it on paper. Ms. Karr has written an astonishing book.
Michikio Kakutani - New York Times