The Liars' Club Analysis

The Liars’ Club (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Mary Karr’s memoir, consisting largely of scenes from her East Texas and Colorado childhood, works brilliantly on a number of levels. It is riveting first of all as narrative, a meandering river of humorous, harrowing, poignant and deeply interesting stories. It is poetic as well, its images evoking a gritty physical reality sharply flavored by the locutions of the author’s origins. Full of casual violence, dislocation, fragmentation, it is social and psychological drama with a strikingly American slant. At the end, in the deepest and most satisfying sense, it is a fairy tale, telling of the breaking of an old enchantment.

It was in Leechfield, Texas, on the Gulf Coast, that purely by accident Charlie Marie Moore met J. P. Karr, a working man employed by Gulf Oil, and, for reasons which remained mysterious to Mary Karr, abandoned her husband and married him. Leechfield—swampy, vermin-infested, fouled by chemical poisons which produced one of the highest cancer rates in the world, was once voted by BUSINESS WEEK as “one of the ten ugliest towns on the planet.” Into this volatile family, this casualty of industrialism, Lecia Karr and, two years later, the author were born—endangered.

The Liars’ Club which gives the book its title was a group of men, including Karr’s father, which met to drink, play pool, and tell stories. In this masculine world the author found some relief from the traumas of life at home, a home dominated by a mother so mentally unstable that at one point she was committed to a mental institution. The author, who at the age of seven was raped by an older boy, lived on the raw edge. Yet her spirit was never broken, and the deep feelings she retained for her mother led her, when she was in her twenties, to probe for a truth which set them both free.

THE LIARS’ CLUB is moving, deeply enjoyable, and a brilliant testimonial to the value of art.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 16, 1995, p. 1.

The Nation. CCLXI, July 3, 1995, p. 21.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, October 20, 1995, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. C, July 9, 1995, p. 8.

The New Yorker. LXXI, July 10, 1995, p. 78.

Texas Monthly. XXIII, July, 1995, p. 78.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 18, 1995, p. 3.

The Liars' Club The Liars’ Club (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Mary Karr’s memoir, consisting largely of scenes from her East Texas and Colorado childhood, works brilliantly on a number of levels. It is riveting first of all as narrative, a meandering river of humorous, harrowing, poignant, and deeply interesting stories. It is poetic as well, its images evoking a gritty physical reality sharply flavored by the locutions of the author’s origins. Full of casual violence, dislocation, fragmentation, it is social and psychological drama with a strikingly American slant. At the end, in the deepest and most satisfying sense, it is a fairy tale, telling of the breaking of an old enchantment.

The early life of Karr’s mother, born Charlie Marie Moore, was a prototypical American odyssey, a pattern of restless seeking and never quite finding. Reared in Lubbock, Texas, she married at fifteen because her mother wanted her out of the house; she moved to New York with her first husband and returned to Texas with her third. It was in Leechfield, on the Gulf Coast, that purely by accident she met J. P. Karr, a working man employed by Gulf Oil, and, for reasons that remained mysterious to the author, abandoned her husband and quickly married him. Leechfield—swampy, vermin-infested, fouled by chemical poisons that produced one of the highest cancer rates in the world—was once voted by Business Week “one of the ten ugliest towns on the planet.” Into this volatile family, this casualty of industrialism, Lecia Karr and, two years later, the author were born—endangered.

It was a traumatic life the children led, one result being that many images and events sank into the “great deep pit” the author, very early in her life, began “digging in [her] skull.” So it is not by accident that the opening sentence of this memoir reads, “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.” The image is of the author, aged seven in 1961, resisting the efforts of the family doctor to raise her nightgown to look for marks—wounds—on her body. “It took three decades for that instant to unfreeze,” for the surrounding picture to form itself in Karr’s mind. Because “this blank spot in [her] past . . . spoke most loudly to [her] by being blank,” it is not until much later in the book that she completes the story.

The sisters coped with trauma in dramatically different ways. Lecia, who became a successful insurance salesman, is quoted by Karr as saying, “Unconscious mind, my ass. Get over it.” Karr, however, worked hard to drag the darkest secrets of her childhood out of that deep pit: self-directed psychotherapy that presumably motivated her to write the book. The Liars’ Club was heavily researched, in part with the help of the author’s mother; Karr, who dedicated it to her parents, thanks her for “freely answer[ing] questions by phone and mail.”

As a child in the early 1960’s, Karr was to some degree sustained by inhabiting the masculine world of her father. J. P. Karr, brought up in an East Texas logging camp, loved to tell stories of his childhood, which to the author became “in most ways more vivid to [her] than [her] own.” He told them to a group of drinking men, whom “somebody’s pissed-off wife eventually christened . . . the Liars’ Club,” who gathered at the American Legion “or in the back room of Fisher’s Bait Shop.” While “not much of the truth in any technical sense got told there,” the tall tales and outright fabrications that passed back and forth had a mythic quality that spoke of the deeper realities of the men’s lives. Some of J. P. Karr’s stories resembled hero quests—outrageous journeyings ending always in a return—and “to Mother, such stories showed that Daddy offered steadiness. . . . Coming back was something she’d begun to need from a man, badly.”

Certainly Karr’s family needed all the stability it could get. Her mother was drinking hard and subject to fits of rage; her father, who “scared the hell out of people, ” at times was “just spring-loaded on having a fight”; and “Lecia and [Karr] behaved like savages at any opportunity.” Fights between the parents were frequent and emotionally violent. Then into this volatile atmosphere intruded Grandma Moore, Karr’s grandmother, slowly dying of cancer.

This woman, for or from whom Karr remembered “not one tender feeling,” sat in the house and “doled out criticisms that sent [Karr’s] mother scurrying around with her face set so tight her mouth was a hyphen.” Karr learned the meaning of suffering when “the doctors piped mustard gas through Grandma’s leg to try to stop the spread of her melanoma.” When she returned from the hospital after having her leg amputated, “she had ossified into something elemental and really scary.” Karr took to walking in her sleep, was suspended from school for attacking other students, and was raped by an older boy who “didn’t even have to threaten [her] to keep quiet.” This dark...

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The Liars' Club Historical Context

Memoir Genre
A memoir differs from an autobiography in that it does not cover the writer's entire life, only selected portions....

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The Liars' Club Literary Style

Imagery
Although Karr often uses vulgar expressions that are part and parcel of the way many of the local people speak, she also...

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The Liars' Club Topics for Further Study

Write your own one- to two-page memoir about an incident you remember from your childhood. Try to capture the child's way of seeing things....

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The Liars' Club Media Adaptations

An audiocassette of Karr reading The Liars' Club was published in 1996 by Penguin Audiobooks.

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The Liars' Club What Do I Read Next?

Karr's second memoir, Cherry: A Memoir (2000), describes her life as a rebellious adolescent. The memoir is written in the same style...

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The Liars' Club Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Strunk, William, and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3d ed., Macmillan, 1979, p. 21.

Atlas,...

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