A Knife at the Door

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Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey

In an introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition of her memoir The Liars’ Club (1995), Mary Karr recalls the enthusiasm that it inspired when it first appeared:

At the peak of the first book’s selling cycle, when it hovered at number two on The New York Times bestseller list for months…I got four hundred to five hundred letters a week….

Reading Liars’ Club seemed to crowbar open something in people. “Your book just dredged up so many memories…” Or, “After reading Liars’ Club, my brother and I have reconciled…” Or, “I’ve been writing down some of what we went through when my father came back from Vietnam…”

This is a writer’s dream response, what I’d hankered for as a kid setting crayon to cardboard on Mother’s Day—to plug a reader into some wall outlet deep in the personal psychic machine that might jumpstart him or her into a more feeling way of life.

It’s easy to understand why so many people were drawn to Karr’s book. She is a gifted storyteller who can make horrific events seem grotesquely funny without minimizing the pain and fear they caused, and the stories she tells in The Liars’ Club are fascinating and appalling. Her mother, who married seven times, was a frustrated artist from west Texas whose alcoholism was briefly ameliorated by a flirtation with methamphetamines, and whose incarceration in a mental hospital followed an incident involving her two small daughters and a butcher knife. Karr’s decent, hard-drinking father, a union man who worked at a Gulf Oil refinery, watched helplessly as his wife descended into madness; after the family moved from Texas to Colorado, she divorced him to wed a bartender “with a crocodile grin” named Hector. Karr’s maternal grandmother, a chilly soul who insisted that her grandchildren weren’t being treated harshly enough, joined the household just in time to die a gruesome death, and Karr’s early encounters with the opposite sex were, to put it mildly, unhappy. At seven, she was raped by a playmate and later forced to perform oral sex on a baby-sitter.

Yet what makes these distressing accounts seem forgiving and bemused rather than bitter and accusatory is Karr’s tone, which alternates high lyricism with a raunchy cowboy noir reminiscent of the snappiness with which Richard Widmark and Sterling Hayden spit out their lines in vintage westerns. “At some point the talk got heated,” she writes, describing the encounter between her father and one of her mother’s previous husbands, “and Paolo called Mother a strumpet, for which Daddy was said to have stomped a serious mudhole in Paolo’s ass.” If Karr’s memoirs read like novels, it’s because their author uses so many novelistic techniques: switching into present tense for immediacy, structuring her narrative so that it circles back to key events, dramatizing scenes with persuasive detail and direct dialogue, alternating horror and humor …

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