You might blame Mary Karr for our love affair with the survivor memoir. Her 1995 autobiography (the first in a seeming trilogy), The Liars' Club, was an international bestseller that chronicled how she survived her alcoholic parents and a feral East Texas childhood (that included rape and the threat of rickets) to become a celebrated writer and esteemed professor.
In the lauded follow-up, Cherry, she tells how she survived a bruised adolescence and shaky young adulthood. And now Lit lays out in painful, gorgeous detail how Mary Karr survived herself.
The Liars' Club and Cherry are remarkable, not just because they're beautifully written, but because they seem to describe someone utterly lacking in self-pity - a feat, considering the hell through which Karr was dragged by her reckless, but loving, parents. In Lit, we learn, not surprisingly, that Karr coped by drinking, not very day, and not with much fanfare, unlike her much-married mother, who drank until she peed her pants, and her bar-brawling dad, who died of chronic alcoholism.
Rather, like a lot of women who "raged" as teens, "partied" in their 20s, and hoped the boozing would naturally taper off in their 30s, Karr simply drove her drinking underground. Her courtship with Warren, a WASP-y poet from old money, wasn't overly dramatic, but their subsequent marriage becomes pocked with livid awareness that her drinking could cost her the man she hoped would save her from herself.
"There had been a time when the wide world was sunlit, every grass blade shining, but the sun's spotlight has shrunk smaller and smaller," she writes. "Now Warren is squeezed out. He's a shade, an outline. I can't see him any more."
Though she never got drunk during her pregnancy, the baby doesn't fix things either. In fact, her son's arrival signals the beginning of the end of ardour. Karr's drinking was once a reward for being a good mother and wife. It soon becomes a punishment for being neither. "Happy hour" takes place after tucking her son into bed. While her husband teaches night class, Karr crouches on the back porch of a lovely house on a lovely campus, where she smokes and sips, listening to sad music until her head gets heavy enough to fall sleep. When she's not dosing herself in the dark, she's driving around the local reservoir, blaring tango and finishing off a six-pack.
[Karr]convinces us of a simple need to search for something bigger than ourselves
"I keep getting drunk. There's no more interesting way to say it. [...]Liquor ... shrinks me to a plodding zombie state in which one day smudges into every other - it blurs time." What used to stimulate her poetry now blocks its exit from her creative recesses.
Another problem: Her son is sickly, so staying sober enough to be of motherly use is becoming harder. His emergency-room visits, the croupy hacking in the middle of the night, her husband's fatigue, all conspire to interrupt her drinking.
After her car spins out in the rain on an empty highway, Karr greets her husband at the door, soaked and sober. He mutters, "You smell like a bum," barely concealing his contempt. That is her "moment of clarity." She makes that inevitable descent into a church basement, squinting at the dull, staid language of recovery, the kind she avoids in her own writing. Thankfully.
By now, no one would blame readers for being skeptical about the ubiquitous recovery memoir, from the too-harrowing-to-be-true mendacity of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, to the too-clever tone of Augusten Burroughs's Dry to the too-pleased-with itself The Night of the Gun, by David Carr.
What those books barely touch on, and what Karr tackles head-on, is how getting sober translates into living sober. Even Intervention, the popular A&E documentary series, casts an avid eye on the lurching drunks but always leaves them at the precipice of re-entry. It might have something to do with the queasiness that the word "God" engenders, an idea or entity the newly sober are often instructed to embrace, especially if they, like Karr, wind up in a 12-step program.
Karr never mentions the organization by name, but it's clear she smacks into the "God thing" at Alcoholics Anonymous. She not only bristles at the word, she wholesale balks at the idea of prayer. It is only after a stint in a mental hospital that she experiences those "reversals of attitude so contrary to my typical thoughts - so solidly true - as to seem divinely external." There she surrenders on the floor by the toilet, a familiar place for many a kneeling drunk. "Before I feared surrender would sand me down to nothing. Now I start believing it can make me bloom more solidly into myself."
Karr doesn't convince us that she's found God; rather, she convinces us of a simple need to search for something bigger than ourselves, a fact that astonishes even her: "More likely pastime? Pole dancer. International spy. Drug mule. Assassin." It's a path that eventually leads her from the church basement to the church itself: a Catholic church.
In and of itself, this is a classic addition to the memoir genre and the bow atop an unforgettable trilogy of books by a brave and brilliant writer. But it's also a moving and helpful compendium for anyone baffled by someone else's, or their own, drinking.
Lisa Gabriele is a television producer and an author, most recently of the novel The Almost Archer Sisters.