I came to Mary Karr’s new memoir, Lit, lugging a bumpy suitcase full of emotions and expectations. Could she really have more to tell after two previous best-selling memoirs, or was this just the fulfillment of a book contract? Her topics—single motherhood, drunkenness, sobriety, a mental breakdown and Catholicism—had been covered again and again by a litany of confessionals. I covered four of those topics in my own first memoir, already out 10 years now. As fate happens to have it, I, too, am a single mother, a former drunk, and (recovering) Catholic.
Our similarities make me a tough critic, especially since Karr ran toward the Catholic Church and I fled it. I recoiled at the prospect of reading a tale of finding peace within the walls of an institution that I despise on so many levels.
Toss into this mix an odd combination of jealousy and gratitude. It’s no secret that less successful writers aren’t terribly good at not envying more successful ones. On the other hand, it was Karr’s first book, The Liar’s Club, that swung the door wide open for memoirs, a literary form that was more than a little mocked before her runaway success. When her story revealed there was a market for memories, there was a scurrying for more, more, more. This is how, as a pup of 32, I received a phone call from an editor at Simon & Schuster inviting me to enter the fray. Without Karr, I never would’ve been plucked from obscurity like that.
Whatever jealousy I felt dissipated fast after I cracked the cover of Lit, a clever reference to both a state of inebriation and the author’s life as student, writer and teacher. Karr’s story, like most of the best stories, does not offer up a particularly new plot. Very good stories—think Romeo and Juliet, itself a retelling—return reshaped again and again, always with the same irresistible, archetypal narrative that captures the human condition and compels us to visit with joy, not complaint, the latest version. It hardly matters that countless books preceding Lit have covered similar ground, over which a hapless protagonist stumbles from point A: sinner to point Z: saved. Along the way emerge gory details of missteps, laundry lists of guilt-inducing, out-of-control behavior, and intricate accounts of sanity lost and regained.
Karr’s book works so well because of dazzling storytelling. Chalk that up to her Texas roots. Texans rank high in the tale-telling tradition. In 400 pages, Karr gives a sweeping examination of her life—and by proxy, our own—that others couldn’t do justice given an encyclopedia’s worth of space.
To Karr’s credit, she avoids blame in autopsying her failed marriage. Her depiction of two people who fail each other equally makes readers want to take responsibility for their own parts in doomed pairings that once seemed only and ever the other guy’s fault.
Where she could have easily tread into the waters of proselytizing—the gospel of both Alcoholics Annonymous and the Catholic church—I did not feel much, if any, didactic tone. As someone who cleaned up sans AA meetings and who now eschews organized religion, I vigilantly waited for such at every turn of the page. There are moments when, for example, she prays to God for help with the bills and the phone rings offering a message she’s scored a huge grant. Moments like that made me hover in the vicinity of wince, as if this might just be another version of The Secret, telling readers that those who believe in God or a manifesting universe will benefit, while the rest of us are doomed to suffer.
I forgive Karr, like the priest I am not, the sin of sharing the wonders of faith, largely because she does share rather than preach. And I confess, like the parishioner I am not, that the book reminded me I wanted to get back to sitting still a few moments every day—not in prayer, but in centering meditation.
As testament to her writing, even if Karr had beseeched us to join her on her chosen path, I think I would’ve kept reading. Because of all the things she was and is and hopes to be, her power as a true and gifted poet makes this memoir soar. Mary Karr is—beyond sober, Christ-loving and sane—a God among writers. Language is the religion to which I am devout, and the Word according to Karr is rich with fresh metaphor, enrobed in carefully wrought sentences, many of which could stand alone as little jeweled gifts from her heart to ours.
I could not, as I sometimes do with more carefully handled books, regift my copy of Lit. Its pages are heavily dog-eared, with notes-to-self to revisit more than a few passages. For some, this book might act as a catalyst to put down the bottle or pick up the Bible. For me, it is a reminder to keep on the path, to work on my writing, to handle words with—please dear God or whoever is in charge—with one-tenth her skill and aplomb. For that, I cannot praise Karr’s work enough. Amen.
Spike Gillespie is a writer and controversy artist who lives in Austin and blogs at spikeg.com.