No matter how messed up Mary Karr's childhood seemed in The Liars' Club or how tumultuous her adolescence in the follow-up, Cherry, those two best sellers stood as proof that this howlingly funny writer had not only survived but also stayed sufficiently clear-eyed to tell her tales. We loved Karr, but we didn't have to worry about her in adulthood. Or so we thought.
Lit (Harper; 386 pages), her third memoir, picks up right where Cherry left off, and it stands as a testament to the impossibility of shrugging off your own beginnings. Karr's childhood catches up with her, turning her into a self-doubting, raging alcoholic incapable of a healthy partnership with her über-WASP husband Warren Whitbread (not his real name). Thankfully, Lit also details the ways she went from suicidal to sober, got divorced and got published.
In some ways, Lit is her most intimate book, full of fallibilities and acceptance of responsibility and viewed at more immediate narrative proximity (although she must be close to 20 years sober now). Karr is less a character and more a living, breathing being. And as a mother to a son, Dev, she is both stronger and more vulnerable. At one point during an attempt to quit drinking cold turkey, she describes his toddler hand on her back as she vomits; his innocent query "Did you get a bad food?" wrecks her--and us.
Karr is the last person who would call her story inspirational--you can almost hear her dry snort at the word--but ultimately, she can't deny it. Lit chronicles her finding first her higher power, then cautiously calling that God and finally embracing Catholicism. She adopts prayer grudgingly and often hilariously ("I'll keep at this perfunctory gratitude the way a stout girl drinks diet sodas while stuffing her face with cheese fries") but is so convincing of her need for it that even an atheist would have trouble arguing her out of her Sunday pilgrimages.
She admits to holes in her memory--"that mysterious dead-head space around the marriage's unraveling"--which leaves the reader impotently grasping at Warren's ghost. Her cadence can sometimes slip into Yoda's rhythms ("fitful, this rest is"). But the overall impression is of a sorrowful narrative poem as humble and funny as it is beautiful. Karr is an "inveterate check grabber," she tells us, out of "the poor girl's need to prove solvency." Perhaps a similar need drives her generosity on the page. Certainly her readers, once again, are the lucky beneficiaries.