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‘Lit’ by desperation, Mary Karr finds God

November 3, 2009

karr190Mary Karr may not have invented the memoir–it only seems that way. But as her latest book, Lit shows, she’s certainly made better use of it than almost anyone else.

Lit is the third memoir by Karr, who will be at Miami Book Fair International on Sat., Nov. 14 at 1:30 p.m., on a panel with fellow authors Jill McCorkle, Lidia Davis and Jayne Anne Phillips.

After The Liar’s Club, the much-beloved memoir of Karr’s hardscrabble childhood in East Texas, or Cherry, an account of her sex-and-drugs hippy adolescence, you might wonder what else “a 50-year-old woman has to write about,” as Karr says in this video monologue.

Plenty, according to Nancy Connors, writing one of the earliest reviews of Karr’s new book in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Lit chronicles the desperation with which Karr led her early-adult life scrabbling for enough cash to get by, driving (and getting stranded by) a half-functioning car, wrecking that car after drinking, arguing with her poet husband over who would care for the baby and, night after night, escaping to their outdoor stairwell to drink until she passed out.”

As befits an accomplished nonfiction writer who is also a serious and well-reviewed poet, Karr’s title resonates — clangs — with multiple layers of meaning. In this brave book, “lit” is Southern slang for being drunk, but it also refers to the light Karr finds in love for her son, the light of literary creation, the light that strikes as she finally finds sobriety in AA — and finally the light of God that draws her, a lifelong agnostic, back to faith and the Catholic church.

Actually, it’s Karr’s willingness to grapple with recovery and faith that makes this a brave book. As the thousands of memoirs that have followed publication of The Liars’ Club in 1995 have shown, it takes little courage to bare the most awful things you’ve done or had done to you — even if you have to make them up.

Addiction, abuse, incest, poverty, incredibly stupid and sordid choices — these are all brimful of conflict, inherently dramatic. It’s a lot easier to write about misery than it is about happiness. As Beth Green observes in Time Out New York, by the time Karr embraces religion, the narrative can’t help becoming “a bit dowdy and plodding.”

That’s just one opinion, though. Connors differs: “How Karr finally managed to hold on to sobriety by her fingernails and slowly drag herself back up the rocky cliff to become a functioning adult and practicing Catholic is a story worth reading.” And even Green concedes: “Still, even when Karr is writing about church, Lit has enough flashes of brilliance to keep you under its intoxicating spell.”

Besides, Karr has already shown in her poetry that she can handle the God thing with subtlety and impact. David Kirby, reviewing her collection Sinners Welcome in 2006, wrote in The New York Times that Karr “never tries to substitute faith for sound poetic practices. If anything, by adding prayer, she just makes the poems that much stronger.”

Karr’s not likely to substitute spirituality for sound prose narrative technique, either.

If you like personal autobiographical nonfiction of the highest order, then you’ll want to decide for yourself. And be sure to see Karr at Miami Book Fair International.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Jared Rapaport permalink
    November 3, 2009 1:49 pm

    Your review has enticed me and I will be going to purchase this as soon as possible. I was curious, if you feel this is a good blueprint for other writers to use, as I submitted an outline of a complete work and a rough draft of the first three chapters of mine, “Bastard” (the one I spoke to you about, and you recommended I undertake before going into fiction as an unknown writer). Obviously, it will not be the same as my life is very different then hers I’d imagine, but I was wondering if you think it is a good work to peruse for that reason as well as the myriad of others you’ve written about. Thanks for the review and commentary as it has moved me and Happy Birthday again!

  2. Jared Rapaport permalink
    November 3, 2009 1:51 pm

    Oh, by the way, mine was accepted by a few publishing companies two months ago, and I forgot to thank you for the recommendation. Thanks again!

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 3, 2009 2:07 pm


    It’s always a good idea — an essential one, really — for aspiring writers to read as much good writing as possible, in all categories and genres, and Mary Karr certainly qualifies. As a blueprint? Maybe. To experience the joy that comes only from good writing? Absolutely. And don’t just read the memoirs. Try some of the poetry, too.


    Congrats on selling your book.

  4. rachel permalink
    November 3, 2009 3:07 pm

    Sounds interesting. I’ll have to check it out. Although my list is already entirely too long. I am curious to see how she handles the subject of recovery as well as her spirituality. I think those are slippery subjects that can easily be messed up.

  5. Eileen permalink
    November 3, 2009 4:33 pm

    I was just listening to Fresh Air in the car earlier today and heard someone talking about those 2 R’s, recovery and religion. The interviewee said to Terry Gross, “I rolled my eyes — I come from a long line of eye-rollers,” just as I was about to do some eye-rolling myself. I wondered, who IS this? Somehow I expected Mary Karr to be more annoying and less funny and, well, endearing. Her best line was when she talked about her neglectful mother: “We were like lizards in a terrarium. Every few days she would tap on the glass to make sure my sister and I were still alive.” It’s impressive that she can be honest and laugh about it.

    Thanks for the great piece.

  6. David wax permalink
    November 3, 2009 6:30 pm

    I enjoy your column Chauncey. I look forward to your next blog!!

  7. November 3, 2009 7:20 pm

    “Addiction, abuse, incest, poverty, incredibly stupid and sordid choices — these are all brimful of conflict, inherently dramatic. It’s a lot easier to write about misery than it is about happiness.”

    And as Elizabeth Wurtzel taught us, it’s a lot easier to write badly about misery. But it sounds like Karr is handling raw truth with real dignity and skill.

  8. Oline permalink
    November 3, 2009 10:01 pm

    Great post, Chauncey. I read you every time you post.

  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 3, 2009 10:07 pm

    Thanks for all the comments. Mary Karr is really special. I like her poetry, too. In fact, Viper Rum changed the ways in which I approach poetry, especially the essay at the end.

  10. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 4, 2009 1:57 pm

    I’m sure Mary Karr is a great writer. But why does it seem like only drunks who are sordid, victims, and loaded (no pun intended) with problems?

  11. November 7, 2009 12:32 am

    I love Mary Karr’s poetry and her memoirs and I heard the Fresh Air interview and almost fainted that the irreverent, cynical but tender-hearted poet had re-embraced the Catholic church. I do suspect it was AA that helped her most and i congratulate her for getting herself to a meeting in the first place. This book is on my list, though i ordered it from the library as I am as broke as the next unemployed or self-employed person. As a poet and a memoirist of lesser literary stature, I have also had an awakening to light, though mine was to leave the Catholic church and my childhood guilt which has followed me like a hungry orangatang, and find a numinous connection during meditation. But bless Mary Karr and bless you for letting us know she will be at the Miami Festival!

  12. March 16, 2012 10:47 pm

    New to Karr and, happy to return to this, to rediscover her through you. I assume you got to see her at the Book Fair; lucky you! If you’ve not yet seen her Paris Review ‘inner-view’, I highly recommend it: Cheers, Yahia

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