Reading Mary Karr’s latest memoir, Lit, is akin to catching up with an old friend over a cup of coffee or, perhaps in this case, over something a bit stronger than coffee. Karr’s earlier memoirs, The Liars’ Club (1995), which covered her childhood years, and Cherry (2000), the story of her adolescence and early adulthood, established for her a well-deserved reputation as an exceptional memoirist. Now, some nine years after Cherry, Karr completes her story, for now, by revealing how she managed to overcome the odds against her to escape both the insular little town in which she grew up and the quirky upbringing she endured there.
One thing is certain; Mary Karr has not had an easy time of it. Growing up in a muggy, mosquito-ridden little East Texas refinery town, one whose residents breathe polluted air no matter from which direction it blows (as I well remember), she was raped by a teenaged neighbor when she was eight years old. Her father, a heavy drinking refinery worker, loved her dearly but wasn’t exactly a role model for his daughters. Her artistic, seven-times-married mother was a bit of a desperado in spirit who struggled with a tendency toward full-blown psychotic episodes throughout much of her life.
As she so frankly details in Lit, Mary Karr is a combination of the good and the bad components of both her parents. Always somewhat of a rebel at heart like her mother, she went into the world resenting those born to wealth as much as her father disliked them, taking pride that she could at least outdrink those who “had been born on third base” but who believed “they hit a home run.” And outdrink them, Mary did - all the way to the point of her own debilitating struggle with alcoholism, a struggle that would steal years of her life and ultimately destroy the marriage that produced her son.
It was a close thing, but Mary managed to save herself, and she accomplished it by doing something so completely out of character for her that it still surprises her. She turned to prayer and organized religion despite a lifetime spent scoffing at both. Despairing and suicidal, she committed herself to what she calls “The Mental Marriott” and the timeout there that would ultimately lead her to place her future in the hands of God, the possibility of whose existence she previously had not been able to take seriously. Lit is a word of several meanings when it comes to Mary Karr. It can be a reference to her success in the literary world or it can be used to describe the drunken state in which she spent so many of her waking hours for so many years. Finally, and most hopefully, it also describes the religious experience that saved Mary Karr’s life when she finally “saw the light.”
Fans of Karr’s previous memoirs will be pleased with this inspirational addition to her story, but Lit also works well for those reading her for the first time, so well that I suspect new Karr readers will want to turn to the first two books.