Seven years in the making, Lit is the third of Mary Karr’s memoirs. The Liar’s Club (1995), her first, was principally about her childhood, and Cherry (2000) focused on Karr’s teenage years. In Lit, Karr attends college in the 1970’s, meets her future husband in graduate school, and becomes a mother while battling depression and alcoholism.
In the letter to her son that begins this memoir, Karr tells him, “Any way I tell this story is a lie” and asks him to forget that she is fifty to his twenty and that her brain is “dimmer” so that she can tell him the “whole tale” as she knows it. Karr describes how she hurt her son, not only by divorcing his father when he was five but also with the shouting and slamming doors that accompanied the end of her marriage. She expresses guilt for “vanishing” into the “madhouse” for a period and recounts her mother’s psychotic episode when she stood over Karr and her sister Lecia with a carving knife before she herself was taken away to the madhouse. When Karr asked her why she had done it, her mother said, “I just couldn’t imagine bringing two girls up in a world where they do such awful things to women. So I decided to kill you both, to spare you.” Karr explains to her son that she always tried to protect him from the “knife-wielding goddess of death” who had also set a pile of her children’s toys on fire.
Part 1 of the memoir begins in California, where Karr spends time with some “extremely stoned surfers.” At “age seventeen,” she is “stringy-haired and halter-topped, weighing in the high double digits and unhindered by a high school diploma.” Thinking of her father makes her feel more rooted in the itinerant, unsanitary conditions in which she lives. She ponders the nights that he would go into the garage and drink from the bottle that he kept under his truck seat, as well as the times that he would come home at dawn after a long day of work in the oil fields and ask Karr to walk barefoot across his back.
After a hitchhiking incident in which a man high on crystal meth picks her up and she jumps out of the car and runs off, Karr realizes that she wants a more stable life than she has with the surfers. She goes to college at “a small midwestern school,” where she decides to reinvent herself for that “leafy place” and the “college folks” who would not know how to speak to someone like her father, “who’d graduated grade six and spent days off cleaning his squirrel gun.” In her father’s absence, Karr seeks the favor of her male professors, one of whoma “white-haired psychology prof, Walt Mink”becomes her mentor. He helps her figure out how to improve her grades and possibly get some scholarship money, as well as offering her a job cleaning rat and pigeon cages to free her from the food service’s “vile hairnet.”
In the meantime, despite her reluctance to take a literature class because she feels outclassed by better-read students, Karr recognizes her affinity for poetry. She remembers that, in high school, she had “fallen in love with the visionary antiwar work of Bill Knott, who’d become a cult figure partly through a suicide hoax.” Impressed with the way he read his poems, drawing them from a wrinkled bag stuffed with pages and then discarding them as if they were trash, she decides to take a poetry workshop with Etheridge Knight. Knight describes poetry as an oral art and impresses Karr with his support of her work, despite also telling her it is pretentious and incomprehensible.
As Karr explains it, Knight runs his workshops from his house with a forty-ounce bottle of Colt malt liquor between his knees, wearing “a string T-shirt and dark pants of a stiff material that I swear to God looked prison issue.” When Walt Mink and his wife arrange a job for Karr teaching at a group home for “fairly functional retarded women,” she is amazed at the women’s ability to tell the good poetry she reads to them from the...
(The entire section is 2,037 words.)