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A drinking life

After a scarred childhood, years of self-destruction before sobriety and the light of Catholicism

(Pete Ryan)
By Rebecca Steinitz
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2009

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Before she wrote her first memoir, Mary Karr was already a poet. If every word matters to a prose writer, to a poet the words matter that much more. Take “Lit,’’ Karr’s dazzling new memoir, which picks up her story just after a harrowing small-town Texas childhood and adolescence.

“Lit’’ evokes the combustibility of Karr’s family, famously chronicled in her stunning debut, “The Liar’s Club.’’ That book begins on the night Karr’s mother set fire to her dolls in a moment of psychosis that begs to be read as metaphor for the insanity, alcoholism, neglect, and strange searing love which characterized her childhood (it’s surely no coincidence that Karr remembers the country ballad “Ring of Fire’’ as “my favorite song’’ on the jukebox in the bar her mother briefly owned in Colorado). Fire imagery races through “Lit,’’ and Karr repeatedly refers to what she calls “my incendiary back story,’’ as she traces the aftermath of that childhood into an adulthood during which “I keep setting fire to my life,’’ solving problems with a “flamethrower.’’

Karr leaves Texas for college in Minnesota, drops out, then earns a degree in poetry at a low-residency graduate program in Vermont (a hardly disguised Goddard College). There she falls in love with a reserved WASP poet with whom she moves to Cambridge, which is to say, about as far from home as she can get. She struggles to build a literary career and support herself, and eventually she marries the poet, despite, or perhaps because of, the cultural and emotional gulfs between them. All along, she drinks.

“Lit’’ is also, of course, slang for being drunk. While alcohol threads through Karr’s history, in “Lit’’ it becomes her story. After the birth of her son, she replaces her newly sober mother as the alcoholic parent, albeit with a desperate concern for the wellbeing of her child, which her own mother sorely lacked. As she tells the story of her descent from the occasional binge to daily degradation, Karr’s linguistic control allows her to write the well-worn alcoholic narrative anew. While a $20 glass of cognac “slide[s] down like scorched sunshine’’ and a beer’s “fizzy sip tastes of roasted grain, tidy fields waving in the wind,’’ eventually the pleasure drains away from her very words: “I keep getting drunk. There’s no more interesting way to say it.’’

After innumerable false starts, a skeptical, cranky, reluctant Karr finally enters, and eventually embraces, recovery, though not before falling into deep depression: Sober, she must face her “dusty psychic moonscape,’’ as she “awakened to the depth and breadth of my preexisting insanity, a bone-deep sadness or a sense of having been a mistake.’’ Here the poet’s talent for prose takes center stage in the poignant, often hilarious characters and scenes she encounters at AA meetings, at the halfway house where she hangs out, trying not to drink while her son watches “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’’ on the couch with “two muscled and tattooed guys’’ “exhaling plumes of cigarette smoke,’’ and at a psychiatric facility (McLean Hospital, also hardly disguised), where once again she accomplishes the impressive task of writing her own way through territory well-chronicled by her literary predecessors - Lowell, Plath, Sexton.

This, too, is when water enters the book, to counter all that fire: Karr approaches a doctor at a talk about sobriety “the way a thirsty dog approaches a water dish’’; in the hospital, unable to stop crying, she becomes “a regular waterworks.’’ The surprise, at least for this reader, is that Karr’s journey - and language - takes her to the baptismal font. Again reluctantly, she staggers her way toward the light of Catholicism, where she is “lit’’ into a new dimension of grace. Not so surprising is her journey to literary success - the final, perhaps definitive meaning of the book’s title - which culminates in the writing and superlative reception of “The Liar’s Club.’’ (Showing that life’s ends can tie up even more neatly than literature’s, Tobias Wolff, her grad school mentor, introduces her to the agent who persuades her to write “The Liar’s Club,’’ and serves as her godfather when she finally enters the Church.)

In recent years, the narrative misdeeds of faux memoirists like James Frey and JT LeRoy have given the genre a beating. But Karr is the real thing. Her focus on the details of experience sometimes sets facts aside, but never forgets them. Though she can skim over events (“I’d even moved to England for a spell’’), she is scrupulous about recording even the moments she has forgotten, which are many and suggestive. When she says in the book’s first sentence that “any way I tell this story is a lie,’’ Karr acknowledges the ontological nature of memoir while establishing her claim to her own truth and to the family whose story she first told in “The Liar’s Club.’’

Ultimately, “Lit’’ reminds us not only how compelling personal stories can be, but how, in the hands of a master, they can transmute into the highest art.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and consultant who lives in Arlington.

LIT By Mary Karr

Harper, 386 pp., $25.99

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