There’s No Lie as Big as the Truth : THE LIARS’ CLUB: A Memoir, <i> By Mary Karr (Viking: $22.95; 320 pp.)</i>

<i> Cyra McFadden is the author of "Rain or Shine: A Family Memoir."</i>

Memoirs inhabit the middle ground between truth and fiction. They can’t stick to the facts, and only the facts, because we don’t remember past events as clearly as we remember how we felt about them, which is a different kind of truth. And sometimes, as in Mary Karr’s memoir about her East Texas childhood, the events themselves are so bizarre, no novelist could get away with them. Who’d believe a grandmother so cruel that when she dies of cancer, 8-year-old Mary has to restrain herself from singing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead”? An alcoholic mother who’s been married seven times and as a hobby of sorts--she’s bored to tears with small-town Texas--keeps trying to kill off her immediate relatives?

“The Liars’ Club” is even more of a hybrid than most memoirs, in that it reads like a surrealist take on “Little House on the Prairie.” You don’t always believe the narrator, in whose family lying was an art form. Sometimes a revelation seems too near or a remembered emotion rings false--though funny as hell--as when the 8-year-old Karr watches her mother set fire to her rocking horse, along with most of the family’s other possessions, during a drunken rampage. What the author was thinking at the time, she’d have us believe, is “Bye-bye, old Paint. . . . I’m a-leaving Cheyenne.” None of which, as we used to say in my part of the West, makes no never-mind. This is such a captivating book, at once hilarious and heartfelt, that you don’t have to believe every word to love it. You need only prop your cowboy boots on the porch rail, open a cold long-neck and listen to the voice of a born storyteller.

“The Liar’s Club” begins with Karr’s sharpest memory, “of a single instant surrounded by dark. I was seven, and our family doctor knelt before me where I sat on a mattress on the bare floor. . . . He was pulling at the hem of my favorite nightgown--a pattern of Texas bluebonnets bunched into nosegays tied with ribbon against a field of nappy white cotton. I had tucked my knees under it to make a tent. He could easily have yanked the thing over my head with one motion, but something made him gentle. ‘Show me the marks,’ he said. ‘Come on, now. I won’t hurt you.’ ”


This is as much of the ominous scene that Karr could remember for three decades, along with the fact that “Mother had been taken Away . . . for being Nervous.” But once the writer has created the expectation of a horror story, a painful saga of childhood abuse, she shifts the tone. Even when she’s writing about remembered trauma, and “The Liars’ Club” is full of it, Karr’s is the voice of a woman with no room for self-pity. “I should explain here that in East Texas parlance the term Nervous applied with equal accuracy to anything from chronic nail-biting to full-blown psychosis.” The way some people are born with perfect pitch, Karr, a prize-winning poet and essayist, is blessed with a sense of humor that allows her to see whatever happens to her, good, bad or terrible, as just one more example of chaos theory at work.

She also has a flawless ear for the salty, folksy East Texas dialect that she learned at her daddy’s knee. The Liars’ Club of the book’s title is the local bait shop in her hometown, where her oil-worker father and his cronies gathered to drink, gamble and tell tall tales: “Of all the men in the Liars’ Club, Daddy told the best stories. When he started one, the guys invariably fell quiet, studying their laps or their cards or the inner rims of their beer mugs like men in prayer.” None of his skill was wasted on his daughter, who grows up to write of him, fondly: “Some days he was spring-loaded on having a fight.” She reports that she and her older sister, Lecia, would “rather have chewed linoleum than gone to Sunday school” and describes her spankings as “a kind of family sporting event complete with rounds.”

The language of “The Liar’s Club” crackles with energy and wit. Then Karr’s tone will shift abruptly again; when called for, she can be tender. Near the end of the book, she reflects on the winding down of her adult relationship with her father, once close, now remote. Though neither of them really knows why, time and distance have loosened their bond. “So over the years, Daddy and I grew abstract to each other. We knew each other in theory and loved in theory. But if placed in proximity--when I came home, say--any room we sat in would eventually fall into a soul-sucking quiet I could hardly stand.”

“The Liars’ Club” is a wild and woolly contribution to the annals of American childhood. Mary Karr was raped by a teen-age boy when she was 8 and later sexually assaulted by a baby-sitter. She witnessed her parents’ booze-fueled fights and her mother’s flights into madness. By means of “fate or grace or pure . . . chance,” she uncovered family secrets so baroque they merit another memoir. Somehow, Karr has looked back at all this without blinking and written about it, as well, with unqualified emotional honesty. In a memoir or any other form of narrative, that’s called spunk.