Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club

Mary Karr has a talent for setting a scene, and The Liar’s Club, her first memoir, begins memorably: we are in her childhood bedroom in a small town in East Texas in the early 1960s. A doctor is inspecting her for bruises, while a sheriff looks on. Her parents are absent; indeed, the first mention of a parent comes when she remarks on her innate distrust of the sheriff, “based on my father’s tendency to get in fights.” We as readers are left as disoriented and helplessly confused as the young Mary Karr. And then the details are filled in. Mary’s father is a Texas labourer, a union man, a hard-talking, hard-drinking cowboy of a father, who teaches her to curse and fire a gun. Mary’s mother is, in the town parlance, “Nervous” – a euphemism “for anything from chronic nail-biting to full-blown psychosis.” Her marriage to Mary’s father is her fifth, and it is filled with anger and thrown household objects.

Life, in other words, does not begin auspiciously for the young Mary Karr. We as readers are whisked from one family tragedy to another, any single one of which would suffice to traumatize an average child, and guarantee a lifetime of future therapy. When she is seven years old, a neighborhood boy rapes rapes her:

It was going dark when he got hold of me under God knows what pretext. He took me into somebody’s garage. He unbuttoned my white shirt and told me I was getting breasts. Here’s what he said: “You’re getting pretty little titties now, aren’t you.” I don’t recall any other thing being said. His grandparents had chipped in on braces for his snaggly teeth. They glinted in the half dark like a robot’s grillwork. He pulled off my shorts and underwear and threw them in the corner in a ball, over where I knew there could be spiders. He pushed down my pants and put my hand on his thing, which was unlike any of the boys’ jokes about hot dogs and garden hoses. It was hard as wood and felt big around as my arm. He wrapped both my arms around it, and it felt like a wet bone encased in something. At some point, he tired of that. He got an empty concrete sack and laid it down on the floor, and me down on top of that, and pumped between m legs till he got where he was headed.

There is some metaphor here, but only in the service of description: the scene is disturbing enough on its own. Other nightmarish episodes follow fast on its heels: her mother, at the wheel of the family car, intentionally swerving into a median and crashing the car; walking into her grandmother’s bedroom only to discover her lifeless corpse; her mother brandishing a kitchen knife and threatening to stab her and her sister; her father’s gradual death by alcoholism, culminating in a devastating stroke. You would not believe, to hear these events recounted, how much humour Karr manages to pack into this book, or how sympathetic she can make her crazy parents. Midway through the book, for example, after her mother has already run out on her father and taken up with other men, Mary makes the mistake of disparaging her mother in front of her father; he responds by threatening to “slap her face clear into next Tuesday” if she continues to talk “thataways.” By Mary’s own reckoning, it was the only time he ever made such a threat, and he never, before or since, raised a hand to her. The gesture is emblematic of the strange loyalty her parents share: they might cheat on one another, or run out for years at a time, but some underlying bond

The book’s final chapter skips ahead almost two decades in time, when Mary is in her mid-twenties, and these sparse pages offer us a glimpse into what the intervening years have done to soften her perception of her parents. In one memorable scene, the adult Mary goes out for margaritas with her mother, knowing full well that if she can only get her drunk enough, she might be able to entice her into speaking about her childhood and her previous marriages. Unsurprisingly, this leads to the discovery of whole new traumas, and we are forced to amend – or at the very least qualify – our view of her mother.

No doubt Karr’s childhood is exceptional on its own, horrifying merits, but it is the particular way she tells her story – with wit and good cheer, even in the face of so much suffering – that makes The Liar’s Club so compelling. She has said, in an interview, that the memoir form lives and dies on voice, and hers blends Texan forthrightness with a poet’s sensitivity to language, beguiling us into laughing when she wants us to laugh, and crying when she wants us to cry.