Monday, February 1, 2010

Book Review of The Liars' Club by Mary Karr

I finished reading a book this week that was so good; I immediately turned it over and started again. With her gritty and honest voice, authentic dialogue and poet’s precision with words, Mary Karr has blown me away.
I guess I have some catching up to do. This book, The Liars’ Club, A Memoir, was originally published to much acclaim in 1995. Mary Karr followed it up with her second memoir Cherry, soon after. Susan Cheever recently assessed Mary Karr as a “great memoirist” in her New York Times Book Review of Lit, Karr’s latest memoir. I read this and thought, “Where has Mary Karr been all my life?” and began to read the trilogy.
Turns out, Mary Karr has been alive and well and (like most of us) living the fractured life as best she can for about as many years as I have. That could be one reason I felt such intimacy with her words. But there’s more. We share a “long memory.” This, her father pointed out to her when she was a child, is a virtue.
“Daddy had instructed me in the virtue of what he called equalizers, which meant not only sticks, boards and rocks, but having one hell of a long memory for mistreatment.”
This served her well in her rough and tumble East Texas childhood with alcoholic, volatile parents. Her mother had a huge and looming secret. Her father stayed away rather than be struck by its unpredictable repercussions.
But Mary Karr’s long memory recorded much more than mistreatment. Karr brings to life in sharp and picaresque detail, the stories her Dad told when she tagged along for gatherings of the Liars’ Club- a group of neighborhood drinking buddies.
“Of all the men in the Liars’ Club, Daddy told the best stories. When he started one, the guys invariably fell quiet, studying their laps or their cards or the inner rims of their beer mugs like men in prayer. No matter how many tangents he took or how far the tale flew from its starting point before he reeled it back, he had this gift: he knew how to be believed. He mastered it the way he mastered bluffing in poker, which probably happened long before my appearance. His tough half-breed face would move between solemn blankness and sudden caricature. He kept stock expressions for stock characters. When his jaw jutted and stiffened and his eyes squinted, I expected to hear the faint brogue of his uncle Husky. A wide-eyed expression was the black man Ugh, who taught him cards and dice. His sister pursed her lips in steady disapproval. His mother wore an enormous bonnet like a big blue halo, so he’d always introduce her by fanning his hands behind his head, saying Here comes Mamma.”
In my family, it used to be said that somebody was “from the workers” if they worked hard. No doubt Mary Karr is “from the storytellers.”
Her mother is poetry in (com)motion as her recounted dialogue is pure gold for the writer of memoir. When Karr urges her to speak of her past, having discovered telling evidence, her mother responds, “I have two headaches, one behind each eye, each one the size of a Kennedy half-dollar.”
Karr comments and recounts her mother’s response when the truth is spilled and they are able to talk about it.
“As to why she hadn’t told us all this before…her exact sentence stays lodged in my head, for it’s one of the more pathetic sentences a sixty-year-old woman can be caught uttering: “I thought you wouldn’t like me anymore.”
Here is how Karr sums up this part of her life as she moves seamlessly from a moment in the past, to her perspective about it in the present, to a projection of it in a hopeful and deserved future.
“I didn’t think this particularly beautiful or noteworthy at the time, but only do so now. The sunset we drove into that day was luminous, glowing; we weren’t. …Though we should have glowed, for what Mother told absolved us both, in a way. All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stories we’d cobbled together out of fear. …It’s only looking back that I believe the clear light of truth should have filled us, like the legendary grace that carries a broken body past all manner of monsters. …to slip from the body’s tight container and into some luminous womb, gliding there without effort till the distant shapes grow brighter and more familiar, till all your beloveds hover before you, their lit arms held out in welcome.”
I can’t wait to be illuminated by Cherry and Lit.

PS I've also reviewed this book for and if you are still interested in The Liars' Club you may want to check that out. (It's a different review.)It will be published on 2/3. I will post the link then.

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