Monday, February 22, 2010

Brilliantly Lit

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr (Harper Collins, 2009) 383 pages

This is Mary Karr's third memoir (the first and second being respectively The Liars' Club and Cherry) which might seem a great number for this 50-something woman unless you know her hardscrabble Texas upbringing. Her life has been difficult, eventful and she has demonstrated a tremendous capacity to grow.

The narrative tone is casual, and sometimes profane, in a way that her first memoir is not even in describing the most horrific situations. This saves Karr because some of the devastating details require no embroidery or emotion to affect the reader. Snippets of poetry, classic and modern, grace the beginning of each chapter. Sometimes the folksy voice grates but usually it hits the mark emotionally and potently.

In this memoir which details Karr's difficulties with alcohol, we first meet her as a young seventeen year old hippie living with some surfer dudes, hanging out, getting high near L.A. A frightening episode with a religiously fanatical (and extremely high) driver during hitchhiking frightens her so badly that she decides to apply to college to escape an uncertain future.

She is accepted to a school in Minnesota (Macalester College in Saint Paul but here unnamed) where she tries to evade her hardscrabble childhood. There she studies and works hard even as a she stands out as a bright, if odd fish, out of water. Her way of fitting in is out drinking all the boys she comes across at any meeting place where alcohol is consumed. "I stand at the bar, its tiered bottles like a shiny choir about to burst into song."

Based on Karr's wit and charm, shown in abundance here in the memoir, and her beauty, still evident, I am sure she was able to deflect any negative attention she received about her drinking in the freewheeling 60s and early 70s.

Reciting poetry as a child for her troubled, artistic mother and her nonplussed schoolmates, Karr secretly desires to become a poet, to live among poets, to live the life of an artist. When she meets a handsome, patrician poet who appears to be of humble means but comes from a very prominent New York family (Michael Milburn here under the pseudonym Warren Whitbread) she appears to be getting all she desires.

Their first meetings are magical - filled with spoken poetry and dreams of future books written together and they are soon inseparable. It is not until Mary meets the in-laws that there is a sense of impending disaster in the mind of the reader regarding the upcoming marriage. The Whitbreads are rich, very rich - reserved, cold and not impolite but never wholly welcoming and their son has inherited their frugal tendencies.They are so uptight that when Warren's father rings their now married household he identifies himself as ... "Warren Whitbread's father".When Mary and Warren's soon to be born son Dev upends a sugar bowl during afternoon tea, Warren's mother hisses, "no other child in that house had ever interfered with a tea."

Karr tries very hard to paint Warren as some saintly, patient husband caught in a difficult situation. Too hard. In almost all instances she accepts the blame for the situation she is in. However he comes off as cold, judgmental and completely blind to the chaos that is swirling around him.

Mary longs for a baby, stops drinking and they try to conceive. She convinces Warren to ask for financial help from his family which he does with some resentment. It becomes another thing that separates them. Once her son Dev is born the drinking resumes.

Inexplicably to the reader, Mary's tenuous emotional life implodes. After Dev's birth, her mother Charlie stopped drinking after decades of abuse (I will save mother Charlie's excesses for another review after I read The Liars' Club). Her father has passed away. Her book of poetry is published and Warren's career is excelling. She is now an academic.

Of her much loved father she says:
Before he died, the wordlessness he floated inside during my teen years had become permanent. If he roused at all, his head craned around bewildered, and he handled his dead hand like a parcel he'd been asked to hold for a stranger.
She drinks stealthily and calculatedly and only seeks help after a near car crash almost kills her. Bored and skeptical she approaches a self help group and is encouraged to pray and share her life with the group.She persists in trying to recognize a higher power which she doubts exists. This book is just as much about her religious conversion as it her struggle with alcohol addiction or her disintegrating marriage.

Eventually she ends up in an asylum, a famously well run asylum (both the poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton did stints there) but an asylum nonetheless. Mary's plans to commit suicide are enough to land her there. Her time there is brief and manageable and vividly retold with skinny Betty, blowsy Pam and a host of other eccentrics and mentally ill patients.

Mary divorces Warren and her uncomfortable contact with the Whitbreads abruptly ends. When she moves to Syracuse, NY to teach, with her son in tow, she ends up in a relationship with the writer David Foster Wallace (here mentioned without his surname). Mockingly, she says of herself that she must have "bat[ted] my eyes at him or fluff[ed] my hair like some cartoon seductress (What a ma-yan!) ..."

Wallace is volatile and impetuous (tattooing her name on his arm even before they kiss for the first time) and they seem to bring out the worst in each other. Not so long ago Wallace killed himself and we see traces of that mental disturbance here in this memoir. The relationship does not last but her sobriety and her conversion to Catholicism does. Sometimes, the religious aspects of this journey irk a bit - as a non-believer it's hard to get with the program at times. But it appears an important part of her recovery.

A lucky encounter with a friend's agent impressed with her verbal storytelling at a literary event prompts her to write her first memoir, The Liars' Club, and the rest is history.

Satisfyingly, we learn that she maintains her sobriety today. Karr's story is that of slowly blooming but spectacular flower. With her success as a poet and memoirist as well as a series of best selling books, I can't wait to see what the rest of her life holds.


Christine said...

I proposed this book to my book club but it didn't win the vote. I think I'll pick it up now based on your review.

Michelle said...

Loved it - i think you will enjoy it Christine Currently reading her first memoir The Liars' Club.