Books: Writer’s talent emerges from depths of despair

Lit: A Memoir

This is the latest in an irregularly appearing series of reviews of books that are likely to appeal to or particularly relate to the Rappahannock reader.

Each year I select a book to give each family member. I use The Washington Post annual holiday book reviews and The New York Times annual “notable books of the year” list to help guide my purchases. I usually find an annotation that intrigues me, and I order a book (or two or three) for myself. That is how I came across “Lit” by Mary Karr.

“Lit” is a memoir — a genre I generally avoid, as I usually read to escape into a fictional world rather than to share the troubled reality of another person. However, the reviews raved about this memoir, and its apparently double or triple entendre of a title grabbed me. The author, Mary Karr, records in this book her journey from alcoholism to conversion. Thus, she is at first “lit” by alcohol and then eventually by God. A writer who has won awards for her poetry and previous memoirs, I imagined Karr’s title might also reference “literature,” which she studies, teaches, and creates. So, I ordered “Lit” last December, and it made its way to the top of my reading pile this summer.

Each chapter begins with a quote from literature (lit), which foreshadows the upcoming action. For example, “People should like poetry the way a child likes snow, and they would if poets wrote it . . .“ by Wallace Stevens precedes the early chapter on Karr’s struggle to find her voice through her poetry and her self-described pretentious and all but incomprehensible early efforts. “I am only a man; I need visible signs . . . ” precedes the chapter describing Karr’s struggle with belief in Christian miracles. The content of the chapters traces Karr’s life from barely graduating from high school to succeeding as an award-winning author and a college professor.

Mary Karr grew up in a dry, hot, and poor part of Texas, with two parents who drank and alternated between intense attention and absolute neglect of her. She made her escape through her talent for writing, earning a scholarship to a private Midwestern university after wandering through the drug haze of California. She calls this first part of her journey, “Escape from the Tropic of Squalor,” which not only communicates her sordid teenage beginning but also her wit. Karr uses detail and self-deprecating humor as she describes her young adult experiences, and the reader joins her as she struggles to fit into the foreign culture of well-prepared and wealthy college students.

We accompany her in her courting of Warren, the wealthy young WASP poet who seems to be everything Karr is not. Her humor, often aimed at herself, is unrelenting. The first time Warren takes her to his home, a “place posh enough to sport a baronial-sounding name without seeming ridiculous,” “a door bigger than my daddy’s bass boat,” and “a uniformed Irish maid” whom Karr tries to embrace (“I don’t have the sense not to hug whoever greets us”), Karr writes, “Facing the big house, I’d like to say I’m neither wowed nor panicky, but I feel like a field hand called out of the cotton.”

She describes a recent Christmas snapshot of the family: “They actually match like the gorgeous silverware. Not resemblance but precise replication. . . . I’ll come to believe that the WASP genetic code imperially squashes the other parent’s contributing DNA to offspring. My own son, blond and blue-eyed will bear so little of me that ladies in the park will think I’ve been hired to push his stroller.”

So Warren and Mary marry; “He seems vaguely stirred by my blue-collar credentials, that I paid my way through schools with all manner of unsavory tasks and now hold down community teaching jobs.”

The young couple struggle to make ends meet due to Warren’s reluctance to depend on his parents’ money. And Mary continues to drink, extending her abuse of alcohol. “I don’t drink every day, but I find myself unpredictably blotto at inopportune times.” After her father’s death, Karr asks Warren to start a family and pressures him to seek support from his father. He does so, resenting her for it. Karr quits drinking and smoking, “cold turkey . . . the last easy quit I’d have.” She quickly conceives, and Warren begins to fade from her as she immerses herself in baby contemplation.

Close to the end of the pregnancy, Karr receives a call from a publisher ready to publish her first book of poetry. She responds apathetically, “I chewed my caramel, satisfied as a brood sow in a mud wallow. Neither good nor ill can reach me.”

Karr’s description of childbirth tempts me to quote several pages. Instead, I invite all mothers to read it aloud to one another, pausing for knowing laughter. Once Dev is born, she writes “Never have I felt such blazing focus for another living creature. I can’t stop looking at him. Joy, it is, which I have never known before . . . delight in something external, not satisfaction of some inner craving.”

Karr continues her autobiographical account, describing the early months of motherhood so deftly that I sometimes laughed out loud. However, her struggles with lack of sleep, with maintaining a job, and with reestablishing her relationship with her husband lead her to resume drinking just to keep going, the very unfunny and tragic development in this stage of her life. She shares her internal dialogues with the reader: “Swaying on the back landing, in the small hours . . . I — once more, with feeling — take the pledge to quit drinking. Cross my heart. Pinky swear to myself. This is it, I say, the last night I sit here.” And through these passages, I grew in understanding of the mind of the abuser of alcohol, and I recognized connections, such as those evenings I promise myself I won’t have that dessert tomorrow or that I will spend that half hour on the elliptical tomorrow.

While this book is certainly entertaining, more importantly it gives the reader insights into the experience of the addict, an addict who is bright and well-meaning, working and mothering, trying to do the right thing but not always succeeding. As true as the cliché, it takes a near-death experience to drive Karr to attend meetings of which she is initially contemptuous. And the meetings drive Karr to her knees, literally, as she experiments with prayer. And prayer drives her to abstinence and to church and to God.

I have omitted the importance of Karr’s parents and their influence for good and bad in her life. So I will conclude this review with her discovery of six verses long ago noted by her apparently non-religious mother in her childhood Bible, the same six verses assigned to her just recently by her spiritual friend:

(Psalm 51: 7-12, also known as the “hanging prayer”)

True I was born guilty, a sinner even as my mother conceived me.
Still, you insist on sincerity of heart; in my inmost being teach me wisdom.
Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, make me whiter than snow.
Let me hear sounds of joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my guilt.
A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.

Readers will find this book compelling, entertaining, and informing. Most of us know someone who has struggled with an addiction. Mary Karr uses her writing talent to portray this very personal struggle with clarity and insight and to offer her discovery of a path out of addiction and into spirituality.

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr, 2009; HarpersCollins, New York. ISBN:978-0-06-059698-9.