When it comes to memoir, having a good story only gets you so far. As one of contemporary America's most beloved purveyors of the genre, "The Liars' Club" and "Cherry" author Mary Karr has never lacked for material. But she's always delivered on the craft side, too, with her poet's gift for show-and-tell. Karr's previous books focused on childhood and adolescence; "Lit" introduces Karr as a successful adult writer whose life off the page is seriously crummy.
As the narrative gains steam, Karr's marriage to a blue-blood fellow poet promises to be a sanctuary where stanzas and sonnets will shelter Karr from her chaotic upbringing. The stress fractures that accompany the birth of her beloved son, however, prove that art alone can't sustain love or save you from your demons. Like her mother before her, Karr sprints into alcohol's stranglehold. Her descriptions are so harrowing that you can't help but worry about her, despite the fact that you rationally understand that the book you hold in your hands is evidence she's conquered something.
Karr's too smart and accomplished a writer to not acknowledge her genre's limitations. But while it's fashionable for memoirists to 'fess up that memory is a fuzzy thing, Karr sincerely and passionately believes in the truth -- just not in her ability to always render it correctly. Exploring her divorce, she writes: "There's also a psychological phenomenon that messes with my ability to depict our nuptial collapse -- the normally crisp film of my memory has more mysterious blanks than the Nixon Tapes. Maybe the agony of our demise was too harrowing for my head to hold on to, or my maternal psyche is shielding my son from the ugly bits. Or I was too [drunk] at the end."
Whatever the reason, Karr's humility makes it impossible not to trust that her bumpy ride will take her -- and you -- somewhere worthwhile. That's important, as she needs the reader's trust when she details her conversion from hardscrabble nonbeliever to joyful (but never saccharine) Catholic. Not because Karr doesn't write engagingly about her faith. It's just that spiritual journeys can easily resort to cliché and leave the reader at too much of a distance from the felt experience.
Thankfully, Karr keeps her religion real. When discussing her inability to see God in all things, she writes, "I prefer to find God in circumstances I think up in advance, at home in my spare time -- circumstances God will fulfill for me like a gumball machine when I put the penny of my prayer into it." If what we expect from Mary Karr is to deliver transcendence for $25.99, she delivers.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen is a Minneapolis writer.