Friday, November 13, 2020

The Liars' Club by Mary Karr

I’ve had a copy of this on the shelf for years. I picked it up at a library sale in Raleigh after hearing about her. I’m sure that Karr is frustrated that her name is always linked with David Foster Wallace. By all accounts he was awful to her. But I have to admit that, despite the fame of these books, it was hearing about her experiences with DFW that put her on my radar. As I said in a review of a book of interviews with DFW, I don’t pretend not to love his work, but neither do I pretend he was some paragon of virtue. I look forward to returning to his essays. But I did think that I should give Karr a shot, and that interview collection reminded me I had The Liars’ Club and Lit on the shelf. I am so glad I finally got around to reading one of them, because, quite apart from how I came to read it, it is a masterful memoir, belonging on the same shelf with the great southern writers.

Karr’s childhood was extremely traumatic. She opens the memoir in the aftermath of something that involved her, her mom and a knife. Near the end of the first section, covering a year of her life in Texas in 1961, the event she teased in the opening is revealed in context. That was not the only trauma she experienced that year. The second section is called “Colorado 1963” and covers her time living there with her mother and sister. This chapter was perhaps more privileged, but still traumatic. The final section happens 17 years later as she is in college and her father is dying. Given the bleak content (so bleak that an epigraph from Blood Meridian is entirely appropriate), that the book is as funny as it is is a serious achievement.

Karr’s prose is in turns poetic and acerbic, peppered with great lines like, “In Grandmother’s defense, she was dying of cancer at 50, which can’t be good for your disposition.” A chapter or section begins, "Maybe if Mother hadn't taken it in her head to shoot Hector, we'd have never got back to Texas." But the book is not merely despairing or sarcastic. As Karr says towards the end, “I never knew despair could lie.”I would not wish aspects of Karr’s childhood on anyone, but I am very glad that she survived and wrote this, and I’m looking forward to more of her work. 

Highly Recommended

Owned but Previously Unread 79/75

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