Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Lit, by Mary Karr

By Jennifer Reese

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Jennifer Reese discusses autobiography finalist Mary Karr's Lit (HarperCollins)

In The Liar’s Club, her indelible 1995 memoir, Mary Karr told the harrowing story of growing up in a rough Texas refinery town where she was raised (if you can all it that) by a glamorous, unstable mother and hot-tempered, hard-drinking father. There was an unanswered question embedded in that wild, marvelous book: How did Karr not only survive her crazy childhood but acquire the skills to write such a vivid, intelligent, and deeply humane account of it?

In Lit, Karr provides an answer, reliving the dark years after she leaves her parents’ chaotic home and struggles to find her place in the world. It’s a task made all the more challenging because she gravitates toward elite academic circles where few colleagues can relate to her blue-collar roots. Her insecurities only intensify after she marries a poet from a wealthy and influential family. “I feel like a field hand called out of the cotton,” Karr writes of her first visit to the enormous ancestral estate.

The only place where Karr thinks she can hold her own is on a barstool, and hold her own she does—in pubs with “tiered bottles like a shiny choir about to burst into song” and huddled on the back porch of her house while her young son sleeps or curled inside hotel bathtubs, swigging from minibar bottles that make her pucker her lips “into a doll’s pinhole mouth.” She drinks as her career founders and her marriage unravels. She drinks until, driving home blotto in a thunderstorm one night, she narrowly escapes a catastrophic car wreck: “I know in one soul-destroying eye blink that my son will wake without a mother.”

He doesn’t. Instead, Karr staggers home and joins Alcoholics Anonymous. While she never downplays the misery of the recovery, her powerful descriptions of the ordeal lack any trace of self-pity. In fact, they are often bracingly (and characteristically) funny: “Only an alcoholic can so discombobulate her insides that she might weigh in her hands two choices—(a) get drunk and drive into stuff with more molecular density than she has, and (b) be a present and loving mother to her son—and, on picking the latter, plunge into despair.”

Watching her claw her way back from that despair is the subject of Lit’s engrossing second half. And, when Karr, sober, stable, and increasingly self-assured, writes the first chapters of The Liar’s Club, you feel like the astonishing story begun in that earlier book is finally, truly, complete.

Click here to see Mary Karr talk about Lit.

Click here to read an excerpt from Lit.