The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Following on The Kiss, I came to The Liars’ Club intrigued to see how the masters do this work. I have a special interest in memoirs about one’s parents, because I want to write one. And Mary Karr is credited with being one of those, during the “memoir craze” of the 1990’s, who got it right (rather than “just” being sensational). (Yes, Angela’s Ashes is coming up, too.)

Mary Karr grew up in a small Texas oil town she calls Leechfield, on the Louisiana border. Her mother was driving through town between husbands when she got a flat tire, and met the tall, bar-brawling oil man who would become Karr’s father. As a child, the author is devoted to her father and enjoys hanging out at the Legion with the beer drinkers; she is dismayed by her maternal grandmother’s coming to stay with the family as she dies of cancer. Her mother has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized briefly before moving her two daughters to Colorado and divorcing their father, but the family will reunite in Leechfield once more.

“The Liars’ Club” refers to the beer drinking veterans who hang out at the American Legion bar, playing dominoes and pool, drinking and telling stories. It is only one of the worlds perfectly painted by Karr’s descriptive prose, as well as crab boils, neighborhood gossips, binge-drinking horrors, death threats, jellyfish attacks, bonfires and sexual abuse. I like that she uses sensory details in a way that doesn’t feel forced (a laundry list of inputs) but does give the setting immediacy: the sights and smells of an oil refinery, for instance, are unforgettable.

I love the way in which Karr is a character in her own story. She occasionally refers to what others’ memories assert (in contrast to her own) or adds a detail learned later through her research, but overwhelmingly, the perspective is that of little Mary Marlene, a girl who is spunky, prone to fistfights, and none too bright (she’s so modest), but devoted to her family. She reminded me very much of Haven Kimmel’s young self in A Girl Named Zippy – whose sequel, She Got Up Off the Couch, is perhaps my favorite memoir-of-parent to date. I had to remind myself from time to time that this wasn’t Zippy talking.

Evocative prose, easy-reading descriptive writing, and an eye for both detail and pathos make this a special memoir. But what makes it outstanding is a balance between the horrific and the hilarious, that Karr can tell painful stories with vigor and make me smile or giggle one page later. A well-written, exciting and entertaining, heartfelt memoir it absolutely is, and as a reader, I highly recommend it for pleasurable reading. As a writer, I’d like to pull it apart and see how it works, because the result is powerful and apparently effortless, but I bet it has strong bones. Luckily, there’s this book coming out…

Rating: 8 plastic-wrapped dress shirts.

4 Responses

  1. […] in my series of not-new-but-still-important creative nonfiction readings (see The Kiss and The Liars’ Club)… Kathleen Norris’s essay collection, Dakota, is brilliant. I see somewhat where it is […]

  2. […] its format, the details of its writing, and its emotional tone. It’s a little like The Liars’ Club in its best parts: funny, self-deprecating, sad, beautiful, brave, honorable, ironic. I raise my […]

  3. […] my review of that book, here it is. And directly after, I turned back to Karr for a reread of The Liars’ Club. (Fresh review coming up on Friday.) I have yet to find my way to her acclaimed memoirs Cherry and […]

  4. […] Shortened version: it was excellent and moving, again. (Original review here.) […]

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