Book review: With 'Lit,' Mary Karr Sorts Out Alcoholic Past

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By Valerie Sayers
Tuesday, November 10, 2009


By Mary Karr

Harper. 386 pp. $25.99

The poet Mary Karr has produced three provocatively titled memoirs -- "The Liars' Club," "Cherry" and now "Lit" -- to tell her life story, or at least her story up to the point when she published the first installment in 1995. With every new book, she must win over resistant memoirphobes like me: readers who dread the depiction of yet another horrific (if colorful) childhood, drug-addled adolescence, young adult breakdown and especially -- most especially -- blissful spiritual recovery. It's not that the lives revealed in so many memoirs are unworthy of examination; it's not even that they're necessarily Too Much Information, that bane of our hyper-therapized culture. It is, rather, that the pronoun "I" can function as a semiautomatic weapon in the hands of a memoirist: Whoever has possession controls the conversation.

Karr's sharp and funny sensibility won me over to her previous two volumes, but what wins me over to "Lit" is the way her acute self-awareness conquers any hint that hers is the only version of this story. The verbal tics of the earlier narratives -- the folksy, earthy Texas-talk of "The Liars' Club" and the stark second-person self-address of "Cherry" -- charmed the many fans who made both books bestsellers, but here she mostly eschews such seductive flourishes for frank acknowledgments about the ways she controls this tale: She says, for example, that her ex-husband has declined a chance to review these pages and admits that this would be quite a different story told from his perspective.

By the time she came to write "Lit," Karr had long since undergone a religious conversion to Roman Catholicism, and she has a new set of models for autobiography, including Saint Augustine and Thomas Merton. Her ongoing exercises in self-examination (she undertakes, among other practices, the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius) bring a heightened sense of her obligations to the family and friends revealed in these pages, but also to herself. Her willingness to write about her conversion owes a good deal to Merton's example of simplicity and directness, but she acknowledges what a dubious choice religion will seem to many contemporary nonbelievers (especially fellow writers). Even her oil-worker father raised her to believe the old saw that "church is a trick on poor people."

Before she found herself in a pew, however, Karr found herself in an alcoholic stupor. So much of this narrative is devoted to drunkenness that it could just as easily be titled "Sauce" or "Hooch." "Lit" picks up where "Cherry" left off, but Karr does such a good job of summarizing the high and low points of her early life that it would be perfectly satisfying for a reader to begin here. We follow her through her adolescent, drug-informed wandering from Texas to California, her strained college days, and the tentative beginnings of her life as graduate student and poet. Apt and generous epigraphs from other writers grace each chapter, and the interplay between their influence and Karr's development as a writer is intriguing.

Indeed, Karr's intellectual life is a strong and engaging story; at many points it's a rope to cling to as the reader rides out the stormy emotionalism of her early adulthood. She meticulously charts the disintegration of her marriage to a man she portrays as emotionally buttoned-down, to say the least. If her portrait of him and his wealthy family is unsparing, it is her own part in their mutual destruction that most horrifies her. The couple's financial struggles are interlaced with glimpses of her in-laws' old money, and it is easy to understand why her resentment festered, given her own precarious upbringing. Certainly, money could have eased the couple's struggle, but there is no suggestion that money alone would have saved them. As she flailed through the early years of motherhood, Karr was hellbent on following the path blazed years before by her flamboyant, alcoholic mother, a pistol-toting artist. Just as her terrifying maternal model began drying out and gaining a degree of sanity, Karr began her worst descent.

Alcoholics' stories can usually be summed up pretty neatly with a single adjective -- in a memoir with a chapter called "A Short History of My Stupidity," stupefying will do. But as with all stories that surprise us, the specificity of the account gives it its punch. Karr alternates droll anecdotes of other drunks (one swigs vodka hidden in a frozen turkey) with her own slow awareness that she, too, is out of control.

If the first two volumes of her memoirs strutted, this one proceeds more modestly: Karr is full of regret, but she's also as funny as ever on the subject of her own sinning. Although these pages sometimes strain for effect (I'm not a big fan of cute phrases like "horse dookey" or the direct addresses to her now-grown son), the language often captures, precisely, the tension between the intellectual and the emotional, the artistic and the spiritual. This is a story not just of alcoholism but of coming to terms with families past and present, with a needy self, with a spiritual longing Karr didn't even know she possessed. It sounds as if she was hellish to be around for much of the time she describes here, but she is certainly good company now.

Sayers, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of five novels.

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