'Lit': Mary Karr on literature, booze and religious redemption
"Lit," the third memoir by "The Liars' Club" author Mary Karr, interweaves the story of Karr's love of literature and alcohol and her bumpy path toward religious redemption. Karr discusses her book Friday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of "Lit" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Friday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
by Mary Karr
Harper, 386 pp., $25.99
"Lit," the one-syllable title of Mary Karr's third and latest memoir, is a triple-entendre that coyly sets up the book's three major themes: the author's love of literature, her thirst for booze, and — oops, what's this — her bumpy ride toward religion.
Finding salvation in faith is hardly a new story. But previous fans of Karr's work, accustomed to her expletive-laced sense of irony, may react the same way an unnamed novelist did, sending Karr a postcard that read: "Not you on the pope's team. Say it ain't so."
Well, it is, so brace yourself. "Lit" contains more than a whiff of the standard recovery narrative as Karr gropes her way toward her new faith. The saving grace, so to speak, is that she, better than anyone, can reinvigorate a tired tale.
Karr's first memoir, "The Liars' Club," helped establish the dysfunctional-childhood genre in the 1990s with a funny and poignant account of being raised by two mismatched, alcoholic parents. Then, in "Cherry," she explored the back-seat sex and emotional confusion of her adolescence. Both revealed the yarn-spinning skill she inherited from her father and the love of words bequeathed by her mom.
These remain in full display in the new book, as she traces her path from beach bum to graduate student, from devoted new mother to booze hound, from intellectual soul mate of a fellow poet to staggering, vomiting shell of a human being — "as if our gene pool owed the universe at least one worthless drunk at a time."
It's a downward trajectory that leaves you wondering about her failed marriage, a relationship that rings hollow from start to finish. Karr is honest but self-protective, using humor to distance herself from the pain. But the bigger question that looms over the story is this: How could someone with her talent and awareness of the damage alcohol can do, and with mentors and friends who came along to fill the holes, fall into the same trap as her parents did?
Blame her genes, her marriage, her insecurity. Karr fingers them all, but spends less time analyzing than describing how she held a job and raised a child even as she was swigging his cough syrup, twirling past road dividers and playing dumb when her husband asked about a missing case of beer.
The story has two other lead characters. The blonde, blue-eyed Dev, now grown but central in his mother's heart, is addressed in the "Open Letter to My Son" that starts the book. The other is Mother (never Mom), a mentally unbalanced Auntie Mame who sheds no tears and feels no anger when she reads how she's portrayed in "The Liars' Club."
Instead, Karr recalls, "her strongest emotion is for an alligator belt of hers I wrote about, which she mists up over, saying, I wonder where that went to?"
All along, Karr the wordsmith struts her stuff. Visiting her future in-laws for the first time, the poor girl sees what wealth looks like: "The ivy-scribbled walls had a fairy-tale quality." During her stay at a mental ward, she visualizes her fellow inmates "arrayed before me like plucked blossoms" as one "went bye-bye on the gurney." Her compassion for them turns into an involuntary prayer.
"Lit" is both like and unlike Karr's earlier memoirs, showing a woman who's both less forgivable and more forgiven than before. Her faith in God hasn't solved her problems, but gave her the strength to handle them. "Once you allow even that sliver of possibility, that crack of light," she writes, "it's not long before the stone rolls away from the tomb."
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."
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