Tangled in darkness -- and emerging whole
“Any way I tell this story is a lie,” reads the first line of “Lit” by poet and memoirist Mary Karr. It’s an ironic beginning for a writer who rose to fame on “The Liars’ Club,” a book recounting her turbulent childhood -- the title taken from the group of guys her roughneck father hung out with, shooting pool and telling tall tales in their East Texas town.
Karr doesn’t mean her “lie” in that tall-tale sense, nor in the James Frey way of intended deception. The prologue to “Lit,” addressed as an open letter to her twentysomething son, speaks more to the unreliability of memory and the filters that color each person’s singular point of view. Karr is acknowledging that her son would likely have a very different version of their life if he were telling the story. More common for the modern memoirist is a kind of damn-the-torpedoes, who-cares-what-you-think stance, so it seems significant that a writer like Karr, whose style and smashing success have had so broad an impact on the literary memoir in recent years, should start her third memoir with the humility of a supplicant.
But then, that’s really her story this time around, which would have been as aptly titled “Amazing Grace.” As the word “Lit” suggests, Karr does chronicle how she followed in her family’s alcoholic footsteps. Intertwined is talk of her marriage to an Ivy League blueblood and its ultimate collapse; of depressed, suicidal thoughts that land her in a mental hospital for a short while; and, finally, of embracing Christianity.
It talks of all these things, sure, but in terms of memoirs it’s not exactly high-octane, which her first was. The drama is mild if put against a recovery narrative like Jerry Stahl’s classic “Permanent Midnight,” or a stylistic tour de force around divorce like Abigail Thomas’ “Safekeeping,” or a harrowing “Girl, Interrupted”-type vision of a psychiatric hospital, or a fervent Catholic conversion account on the order of Heather King’s “Redeemed.”
As for “The Confessions of St. Augustine” -- who put the “s” in sin -- well, let’s not even go there. Compared with all those, Karr’s transgressions, among writer types, are tame.
But thankfully the unusual and the extreme aren’t essential ingredients for a good memoir. Karr could tell you what’s on her grocery list, and its humor would make you bust a gut, its unexpected insights would make you think and her pitch-perfect command of our American vernacular might even take your breath away. The closest relative to the memoir form is poetry, because the subject of the story doesn’t matter as much as the self-awareness and craft of the writer telling it. In this, the Guggenheim Fellow in poetry holds the position of grande dame memoirista.
The tone of “Lit” is intimate and friendly; it’s easy to picture sitting on a back porch with Karr on a hot afternoon sipping lemonade (she’s sober now). You ask her, “So Mare, how did you go from being the tough little kid from the crazy family to the drug-addled, horny teenager you write about in ‘Cherry,’ your second memoir, to the award-winning, bestselling author and professor of literature you are today?” She takes a drag off a cigarette and says, “Well, a funny thing happened on the way to. . . . “ A raconteur skilled in rendering life’s small moments, Karr rarely fails to make herself the butt of her jokes.
“Lit” is yet more evidence she took to heart the advice that her friend and mentor, “This Boy’s Life” author Tobias Wolff, gave her while she struggled with early drafts of “The Liars’ Club”:
“Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit. . . . Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed. . . . Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity . . . .”
Karr also knows her reader sitting with her there on the back porch has heard a few rumors, namely of her romance with novelist David Foster Wallace. Karr gives the broad outline of their relationship, from getting to know him at a 12-step meeting to their eventual flameout, without crossing any lines of propriety. (They got together after her divorce and before his marriage, so again, in terms of drama, big whoop.)
She also seems stringent in her kindness and fairness to her ex-husband, never throwing him under the bus for the benefit of a more thrilling yarn.
Ultimately, the most moving, illuminating moments of love and reconciliation come from family. The boozy, lunatic behavior of her mother so darkened Karr’s childhood, yet her later sobriety serves as a kind of beacon of possibility. Her sister, Lecia, becomes her biggest fan and supporter. And finally, it is her son, Dev, who shows her the way to faith and who inspires her to share her story. “Maybe by telling you my story, you can better tell yours, which is the only way to get home, by which I mean to get free of us,” she writes.
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