The popularity of memoirs is a rather recent phenomenon. One of the earliest and best examples of the genre is 1995's “The Liars' Club,” written by poet Mary Karr.
In “The Liars' Club,” Karr recounted her difficult childhood, growing up with her sister, brother and alcoholic parents in a tough, impoverished town in Texas.
Her father worked in an oil refinery, and her mother was a frustrated artist. Her mother was also prone to violent, scary outbursts against her three children.
The book was a revelation, and it became a bestseller. Karr's follow-up, “Cherry” continued her journey through young adulthood, taking off for California with friends, and eventually ending up at a small college in Minnesota to study poetry and literature.
“The Liars' Club” moved me deeply, but I didn't feel as strongly about “Cherry.” Karr's latest memoir, “Lit,” is a fascinating journey through marriage, motherhood, career, alcoholism and the search for meaning through religion. Fans of “The Liars' Club” have been rewarded for the wait.
The title “Lit” refers to a synonym for the word drunk, as well as an abbreviation for literature, Karr's salvation in life.
The book opens with Karr at her nightly ritual: sitting on her back porch, smoking and drinking heavily, with the baby monitor next to her in case her sleeping baby boy wakes up.
Karr describes how she fell in love with Warren, a preppy, older poet. Warren came from a wealthy family - he was everything that Mary was not. She thought that marrying him would make her a better person.
“Like any traveler from a ruined land, I try to adapt to the new customs, part of some ineffable mystery that compromises the man whose photo I carry in my wallet like an amulet against the squalor I was born to. I yearn for transformation, and Warren is its catalyst.”
Mary didn't fit in with Warren's uptight, proper family. How could she? She was used to screaming and venting and arguing with her family; her marriage appeared doomed.
Mary and Warren had no money, so she took waitressing jobs and eventually secured a part-time teaching position. She managed to sell a book of poetry to a publisher, and eventually she became recognized for her work, winning a few awards and small sums of money.
At the same time, her drinking became worse. She was unhappy in her marriage, and Warren was unhappy with her drinking. They were on a downward spiral. Ironically, her escalation in drinking coincided with her mother stopping drinking.
Mary and Warren end up in Syracuse when Mary is offered a position at the English department at Syracuse University. Her description of life in Syracuse will interest people who have grown up in central New York.
The most fascinating parts of the book deal with Mary facing her alcoholism. Like most alcoholics, she reaches rock bottom before she can deal with her addiction. Her stint at rehab, the other people she meets who are also living with alcoholism, and the day-to-day struggle to stay sober will be familiar to many people who have faced the same battles in their own lives.
Karr is honest about her difficulties and the shame she feels in her relapses. One of the parts of her recovery that Mary has the most difficulty dealing with is “surrendering to a higher power.” She has never been a religious person, and doesn't feel that a belief in God is essential to her living with her alcoholism.
“But what if I don't believe in God? It's like they sat me in front of a mannequin and said, 'Fall in love with him.' You can't will feeling.'”
Eventually it is Karr's young son who brings her to religion. He asks if they can attend church, “to see if God's there,” and she reluctantly agrees. They try out various churches, and it is at her friend Tobias Wolff's Catholic parish in Syracuse that she meets Father Kane, “a blue-eyed Irishman who takes us through Mass in the most unvarnished way, with none of the maudlin piety I've seen at other churches and temples.”
Karr connects with Father Kane, discussing issues she has with religion. When Mary questions Father Kane about her concerns, he grins and says, “God's after you. Struggle all you want.”
Mary meets good people at church (including a former Jesuit and a former nun who run the Peace and Social Justice Committee), and her growing involvement in the church, and acceptance of God into her life, brings her the peace that she has been seeking.
Karr closes the book with a visit back home to move her mother out of the house she grew up in, the one that played such a big role in “The Liars' Club,” and into a nursing home. Her story has come full circle.
“Lit” is a remarkable book, the best of what a memoir can be. It is honestly written in lovely, poetic language, a tale of Karr's journey to becoming a woman, a wife, a mother, a poet, a daughter, sober - in short, a human being.
It is one of the best books of 2009, and anyone who enjoys non-fiction shouldn't miss this one. I give it five stars.
Diane La Rue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her lifelong goal is to read one book per week; she submits reviews monthly for The Citizen. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org