‘Lit’ by desperation, Mary Karr finds God
Mary 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.