Mary Karr has published four acclaimed volumes of poetry, but she’s most famous as a memoirist – particularly for her 1995 award-winning bestseller “The Liars’ Club,” which was followed by “Cherry,” a reminiscence of her adolescent years. Karr’s latest memoir is Lit, which recounts her failed marriage, bouts with alcoholism and mental illness, and her unlikely conversion to Roman Catholicism.
No reader could be faulted for suffering from Memoir Fatigue Syndrome, considering how saturated that genre has become. Everyone in our reality television-infested era, it seems, has a story to tell. What distinguishes Karr’s book from most others, however, is her mordant humor and exceptional writing. Throughout, her descriptions are startling and poetic: the sound of her infant son’s cough in the night “pierces the heavy sleep that wraps my skull in sodden layers of papier-mâché.” And each day of sobriety feels like “a gray tundra I wade across.” The grievous legacy of her parents is described in similarly stark terms: “Daddy was steady and stayed. Mother was an artist and left. Those two opposing colossi tore a rip in my chest I can’t seem to stitch shut.”
Karr had her first blackout at age 17, and by 21 knew that she had “an appetite for drink, a taste for it, a talent.” Yet even then she found that “[h]umming through me like a third rail was writing.” Karr became a poet (albeit a struggling one) and at graduate school met the man she’d marry, a fellow poet. She came from a hardscrabble Texas background; he came from an East Coast blue blood family. Known in the book as the pseudonymous “Warren Whitbread,” he’d attended prep school, was a star student of Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar at Harvard, and came from a blue blood family. (The fish-out-of-water story of her first encounter with his stuffy parents is hilarious.) Their dynamic was troubled from the start.
The author’s recollections of her “airless box” of a marriage are a study in stultifying dysfunction: downing cases of beer on her own; perfunctory, distant communication with her husband, disrupted only by the occasional accusatory argument. In one scene, while their toddler son, Dev, is in the tub, a nasty fight erupts: “We unzip our mild parental personas, shedding them, rising up like four-legged beasts rearing back,” she writes.
Unable to resolve her marital woes, despite couples’ therapy, Karr drinks herself into oblivion. At first she takes a cynical approach to the AA meetings she feels compelled to attend, but a fellow recovering alcoholic named Joan knocks sense into her. “The fact that you’ve continued to drink – given your history of depression and family trauma – borders on the moronic,” Joan tells her. She also urges her to start praying, though Karr scoffs at the idea. Joan is among several would-be saints who attempt to rescue Karr, including the author Tobias Wolff (“This Boy’s Life”), an important mentor in her early writing career. “Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else,” he advised her about telling her life story. “Take no care for your dignity.”
That advice has been heeded beyond measure. In each of her memoirs, Karr has been her own most damning critic. At times the brutal probing of her “bone-deep sadness” feels oppressive. She spares no detail – whether recalling having choked on her own bile while passed out from booze, the vicissitudes of her sexual yearnings, the ineluctable pull toward suicide that she can’t seem to shake, or the time spent at she calls the “Mental Marriott,” a psychiatric facility.
“Lit” follows a familiar memoir trajectory: It’s the story of a person in denial of a disease that might kill her (alcoholism), of hitting rock bottom again and again, and eventually finding redemption through a spiritual path (in this case, conversion to Catholicism), which makes her “feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved.” This is a truly harrowing story, but so poetically written that unlike many memoirs, the material seems riveting rather than repugnant. And not once does the author paint herself as the heroine of her own life. (There isn’t a single false note in “Lit.”)
Although presumably still struggling in middle age to shed the trauma of her early years, Karr admirably fought her way toward faith, became a dependable mother to her son, and fulfilled her writing ambitions beyond her wildest dreams. Her hard-won contentment is inspiring, and above all, miraculous.