By Mary Karr
HarperCollins, 386 pages
Mary Karr, prizewinning memoirist and poet whose bestselling volumes of autobiography, The Liars’ Club and Cherry, describe her hardscrabble Texas childhood, grew up convinced that the only way to survive the pain of living with alcoholic parents was to suck it up. “Daddy was steady and stayed,” she says. “Mother was an artist and left. Those two opposing colossi tore a rip in my chest I can’t seem to stitch shut.” Her efforts to heal this gaping wound by waging a war of her own with the bottle are the subject of her new memoir, Lit.
The clarity and energy of the writing as Karr recounts her descent into alcoholism and struggle for rebirth on the razor’s edge of sobriety make the book an unlikely joy to read. In the prologue, an open letter to her son, Dev, now in his twenties, she says her aim is to help him understand the role his toddler-self played in his mother’s rescue when “being drunk got increasingly hard, and being not drunk felt impossible.”
The back stairs of the house in Cambridge, Massachusetts that Karr shared in the late eighties with her then-husband, Warren (not his real name), is the scene of the alcohol-fueled time-outs meant to unchatter her mind and make her fit company for their little family of three. Even though she has traded her Texas trash upbringing for a patrician husband, a child and a book of poems that land her a teaching job at a prestigious East-coast college, she can’t let go of a gnawing sense that her accomplishments are undeserved. There on the back stairs, cigarette in one hand, whiskey tumbler in the other, ears plugged to blues on her walkman, Karr, 34, stares at the white baby monitor, waiting in numbed-out new-mommy panic for the yelp that will light up the tiny red signal light and start her scrambling like a rat to keep the lid on.
Her son, Dev, suffers from mysterious fevers that cause late-night runs to the emergency room that in turn cause Karr to miss work. Cancelling too many classes, she fears, might result in the loss of her job.
If only she could publish another book of poems, she thinks, her place in the academy would be secure. But how can she write, when the landlord shows up daily to paint the house and her husband comes home from work expecting dinner and sex. Karr fixes her drunk gaze on the garage, which brings on a “mind jump” back to her oil-worker father, sitting in the garage in Leechfield, Texas, drinking himself to death. Flashing back to her child-self, waiting for her mother’s headlights to come swerving up the street, Karr recalls how “Through sheer force of will, I’d draw her drunk ass home alive.”
Moving with fascinating ease from present to past and back again, Karr describes her lonely efforts to imitate the behavior of the upper class circles her husband helps her gain entrance to, most especially their “talent for ignoring the ugly obvious.” (p.80) Still, her drunken stabs at perfect motherhood mostly fail. Her son’s demands for attention, day and night, eat up more and more of her writing time. Her husband, feeling himself ignored, goes off to work every morning cold and sulky. Parking herself on the back steps with a drink and sweepstakes entry forms as night fast approaches, she takes stock of how she’s doing: “By afternoon I can’t abide Mr. Rogers asking to be my neighbor without a cocktail.”
Karr’s talent for masking pain in darkly comic retellings of old family stories will be familiar to most children of alcoholics. But the book makes it clear that, even though her parents were helplessly inadequate at child-rearing, they did instill in their two daughters the ability to love and, even more difficult, be loved. Karr’s work ethic, inherited from her father, never lets her down. Her mother’s contribution to her daughter’s survival is more complex, but nonetheless palpable throughout the book. From her, it’s clear that Karr inherited great taste in art and literature, which as every child of a certain type of alcoholic knows, is not just half the battle. It’s the whole war.