“Lit” is bold, funny, unsentimental, brutal, gloomy, depressing, enlightening, instructive, and whip-smart all at once.
The bottom line is you get to spend 386 pages with Mary Karr and you’re in good hands, poetic hands.
I’m sure it’s possible to read this without reading “The Liar’s Club” first, but I’d recommend devouring Karr’s first memoir before this one. You’re probably going to end up reading it, anyway, to learn more about Karr’s quirky (to put it mildly) upbringing—her mother’s revolving-door of husbands, her father’s fists, the rape, the drinking and the family love. Yes, family love. There are plenty of references in “Lit” to what happened in her youth, but you’ll have much more detail to work with.
(“Lit” does include a brief recap to “The Liar’s Club.” There are also a few references to the people and stories in “Cherrt,” Karr’s second volume. But you don’t need to read “Cherry,” about Karr’s coming-of-age years to enjoy this.)
The brilliance here in “Lit” is in the insight, the ability to break down moments, the ability to dig down deep in your own muck and mistakes and try to understand (and explain) how you came so unglued, so lost, so dependent on alcohol for escape.
Karr does all this without a wisp of self-pity. At first, things seem fine. Karr finds a fellow writer and poet from a wealthier background. “Like any traveler from a ruined land, I try to adapt to the new customs, part of some ineffable mystery that compromises the man whose photo I carry in my wallet like an amulet against the squalor I was born to. I yearn for transformation, and Warren is its catalyst. What I don’t understand, I try to yield to, though I’m genetically disinclined to follow instruction.”
The arc of “Lit” is a swirling, sloshed-out ride to the bottom of the bottle and a sluggish, up-and-down struggle back through therapy and coaching and prayer—religion, in this case Christianity—to becoming a functioning member of society, an artist.
The plot you may have read many times but it’s unlikely you have heard this tale through the eyes of a such a detailed, introspective poet. It’s unlikely you’ll root as hard for anyone else as you do for Karr as she climbs up, slips, tumbles, and scrambles up again.
Karr is dead clear about her reliance on outside help to get through the dark days and she keeps pulling you along with sharp writing. “The further I get from the rainy night my car skidded sideways on my last drunk, the bleaker the outlook of toppling back into the tar I’ve just slithered out of. A beer has come to seem like a bullet in a gun’s chamber. But the occasional urge for icy oblivion can still tear through me with brute longing.”
Karr approaches religion with mountains of skepticism, but she also clearly shows us how she grew to understand and appreciate its comfort and supports. (Nothing comes close to pushiness on this topic, however. I have a sensitive antenna for zealous pushers of religion; Karr doesn’t come close.)
As the book came toward the end, I found myself reading slower and slower, not wanting it to end and trying to savor each moment. There is a moment in the hospital where Karr’s mother is dying that is laugh-out-loud hilarious and makes even more sense if you’ve gotten to know Karr’s mother through “The Liar’s Club.” Karr’s mother is one of the wackiest real-life characters you’ll ever meet and how Karr treats her at the end—after all they have been through—is touching.
The last few morsels of insight are brilliant, sweet, touching and hopeful. “Lit” is about escaping and coming all the way back. You’re glad Mary Karr made it back from the depths to tell this tale.
By Mary Karr
(from The New Yorker, 2010)
My father lived so far from the page
the only mail he got was marked Occupant
The century had cored him with its war, and he paid
bills in person, believed in flesh and the family plan.
In that house of bookish females, his glasses slid on
for fishing lures and carburetor work,
the obits, my report cards, the scores.
He was otherwise undiluted by the written word.
At a card table, his tales could entrance a ring of guys
till each Timex paused against each pulse,
and they’d stare like schoolboys even as he wiped
from the center the green bills anted up.
Come home. I’m lonely, he wrote in undulating script. I’d left
to scale each distant library’s marble steps like Everest
till I was deaf to the wordlessness
he was mired in, which drink made permanent.
He took his smoke unfiltered, milk unskimmed.
He liked his steaks marbled, fatback on mustard greens,
onions eaten like apples, split turnips dipped
into rock salt, hot-pepper vinegar on black beans.