Book review: 'The Liar's Club' by Mary Karr

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 18, 1995


A Memoir

By Mary Karr

Viking. 320 pp. $22.95

It's difficult to get much perspective on large events when they're happening right around you, but even from this vantage point it seems safe to say that literary historians of the future will look back to our times and remark upon two significant developments. One is the withering away of American literary fiction, a victim in part of forces beyond its control and in part of its own willful withdrawal from society. The other is the diversion of the confessional urge upon which literary fiction has fed into nonfiction, most specifically the memoir. Indeed, if matters continue at their present pace, the memoir may well be our most important literary form by the turn of the millennium.

It is a measure of how rapidly this transformation has taken place that the most recent edition of The Oxford Companion to American Literature, published only a dozen years ago, contains no general entry for memoirs and no specific ones for the book, Stop-time, that we can now identify as the beginning of the age of memoir, or its author, Frank Conroy. Published in 1967, that book was immediately recognized both for its distinctive literary quality and for being, at the time, sui generis; now the confessional memoir borders on the commonplace, especially the memoir of a difficult and eccentric but rewarding childhood.

The Liars' Club is the most recent addition to this genre, and a welcome one by any standard. Its author, Mary Karr, is described as "a prize-winning poet and critic," so it is with some embarrassment that I acknowledge no previous acquaintance with her name or work, but then in 1967 no one had heard of Frank Conroy, either. If The Liars' Club seems less remarkable now than Stop-time did then, it is only because that book and many others have accustomed us to memoirs of unsparing candor; but it is remarkable all the same, and a great pleasure to read.

Mary Karr, who is now about 40 years old, is the daughter of a laconic Texas oil worker and his somewhat flibberty-gibberty wife, herself also a Texan but one who did some time in New York and came away from it with a taste for the life of literature and art. Perhaps not surprisingly, this union resulted in a daughter with a down-home affection for the hardscrabble place where she grew up and a considerable gift for the English language; perhaps no more surprisingly, it produced another daughter, Lecia, who has displayed considerable skill at tough dealings in the world of business.

Considering the chaos of their childhoods, it's no small accomplishment that these two women survived to adulthood, much less made large places for themselves. Their parents' marriage had its moments of tenderness and happiness, but much of the time it was fractious, noisy and self-destructive. Their father was loving when he put his mind to it, but his real life was at work and with "an audience of drinking men he played dominoes with on days off," called the Liars' Club by one wife who finally tired of all the boozing and story-telling. Their mother was around, but she drank heavily, retreated into her artistic fantasies, and hovered at the edge of a condition known regionally as "Nervous," i.e., mental imbalance.

The family as a whole was "Not Right," which is to say that it did not conform even to such normality as existed in the East Texas town of Leechfield, not far from Port Arthur, a place so dreary that "Business Week once voted it one of the ten ugliest towns on the planet," a place of which their father said "the town was too ugly not to love." Everybody lived in sorry little houses and talked the union line -- "Daddy said a Republican was somebody who couldn't enjoy eating unless he knew somebody else was hungry" -- but the Karr family stood out all the same, what with both parents drinking and shouting at each other and nobody caring what anybody else thought.

As invariably happens in such circumstances, the two girls were thrown together in an intimate but far from tranquil alliance. "In fights Lecia and I have as grown-ups," Karr writes, "she'll scream at me, You were always so . . .cute!' And I'll scream back, You were always so . . . competent!' Which sums up our respective jobs in the family." Both girls were tough, not merely because circumstances demanded it but because they admired their father, who was quick on the trigger:

"After I grew up, the only man ever to punch me found himself awakened two nights later from a dead sleep by a solid right to the jaw, after which I informed him that, should he ever wish to sleep again, he shouldn't hit me. My sister grew up with an almost insane physical bravery: once in the parking lot outside her insurance office, she brushed aside the .22 pistol of a gunman demanding her jewelry. {Expletive} you,' she said and opened her Mercedes while the guy ran off. The police investigator made a point of asking her what her husband did, and when she said she didn't have one, the cop said, I bet I know why.' "

Mary Karr puts a brave face on her childhood, but she hardly scants its bruising aspects. She hated her maternal grandmother, who lived with them while slowly dying of cancer, and when death at last came she almost rejoiced in it, yet "something in me had died when Grandma had, and while I didn't miss her one iota, I keenly felt the loss of my own trust in the world's order." She describes in harrowing detail the day their mother finally snapped, one that instilled what became "an old fear: I didn't want Mother to kill herself." When her parents divorced, her heart just about broke, and when they got back together it mended, if imperfectly.

Her memoir's title refers in part to the Liars' Club that was her family and in part to the American Legion poolroom and bar. Until Mary underwent the transformation from little girl to young woman, her father used to take her there. "Something about the Legion clarified who I was," she writes, "made me solid inside, like when you twist the binocular lens to the perfect depth and the figure you're looking at gets definite." She adds:

"That bar also delineated the realm of sweat and hourly wage, the working world that college was educating me to leave. Rewards in that realm were few. No one congratulated you for clocking out. Your salary was spare. The Legion served as recompense. So the physical comforts you bought there -- hot boudain sausage and cold beer -- had value. You attended the place, by which I mean you not only went there but gave it attention your job didn't deserve. Pool got shot not as metaphor for some corporate battle, but as itself alone. And the spiritual comforts -- friendship, for instance -- couldn't be confused with payback for something you'd accomplished, for in the Legion everybody punched the same clock, drew the same wage, won the same prize."

Thus it is that, like many other American memoirs, The Liars' Club is a tribute to and lament for a world its author no longer occupies. Discovering and conquering new worlds, living new lives: It is the essential American story. In order to tell it one has to leave, has to acquire the skill of telling and the perspective to see it whole. Probably it's a better thing to write a book than to shoot a game of pool, and Mary Karr doesn't give any sense that she regrets the path she's taken. But she most surely regrets what she left behind, and she makes us regret it too. The Liars' Club is a beauty.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company