Mary Karr
Mary Karr; drawing by David Levine

My memory of eight surreal months in Beaumont, Texas, in 1961-1962, overlapping minimally with the time span chronicled by Mary Karr in The Liars’ Club (1995) and in her new sequel to that best-selling memoir, Cherry, is almost exclusively visceral. When the air is saturated with chemical smells—sickly sweet, acrid, like toxic-waste cherry syrup with a nasty undertone of sandpaper—you find it difficult to contemplate loftier subjects. Airborne pollution from oil refineries in this devastated East Texas landscape near the Louisiana border and north of the Gulf of Mexico, known without irony as the “Golden Triangle” (Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange), must have been close to the edge of human endurance; yet the area’s sense of itself was unfailingly upbeat, optimistic.

These were “boom times” for Texas refineries. Luridly apocalyptic sunsets (flamey-orange, bruised-plum-tinged-with-acid-green) were admired as aes-thetic bonuses—“In’t the sky gorgeous?” Urban areas technically known as cities seemed to have been but recently, and hastily, hacked out of the Big Thicket (pinewood, scrub trees), lacking any architectural distinction, lacking even centers, on a grid of railroad tracks, their poorly paved roads susceptible to dangerous flash floods. There was no cultural life in the Golden Triangle, or the acknowledgment of its absence, unless churchgoing (among whites, predominantly Baptist) constituted culture. One of my Beaumont memories is waiting in an overheated car in long lines at train crossings as freight trains rattled past endlessly. This was hurricane territory, gale-force winds blowing up from the Gulf, but nearly every day there were torrential rains. There was a gasoline-oily glisten to surfaces. I remember a dead, bloated steer lying on its side in a road, forcing traffic to drive around it. Everywhere were snakes, often dead, of an amazing length, run over and mashed on the pavement. At Lamar State College, new, cheaply built classroom buildings were windowless, like cinder-block cubes, air-conditioned to a temperature that set one’s teeth chattering. In the women’s lavatories (I can’t vouch for the men’s) toilets were rarely flushed, hands were rarely washed after the use of toilets. Everywhere were flying roaches of a species unknown in the North.

A young wife, I spent much of a night seated on a straight-back chair in the center of a carpetless floor, my knees drawn up to my chest, as my husband, armed with a flashlight and a shoe, bravely but mostly futilely set out to kill, or to rout, the army of glittering black roaches large as hummingbirds, and aggressive, that had swarmed, as if by magic, out of the upholstered furniture and beds in our newly rented house, as soon as night fell. My state of catatonic terror was not helpful to the situation, but Ihad no other.

Beyond such visceral impressions, the Golden Triangle held little charm. This was a brutally segregated society in which “Ne-gras” were presumed to be subhuman and, if resistant to that label, uppity and troublesome, dangerous. Yet the de facto apartheid of the region guaranteed that communication between the races was very difficult, for regional blacks did seem to speak a foreign dialect, baffling to outsiders. Eight months can be a lifetime, and yet, for some, catatonic with amnesia, such a lifetime can yield little of worth.

And yet here is Mary Karr, whose triumphant first book of prose, The Liars’ Club, ranks with the phenomenon of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes not only as among the most artfully composed of recent American memoirs but as a book that has wholly deserved its success. Both The Liars’ Club and its sequel, Cherry, are macabre valentines of a sort to “Leechfield, Texas” (not located on my map, seemingly somewhere in the vicinity of Port Arthur), in the “Ringworm Belt,” a town once voted by Business Week as “one of the ten ugliest…on the planet.” Mary Karr is a daughter of that world, and of its particularities she has fashioned a region of the soul so vividly described it has the power of oneiric prose, entering our dreams as if it were our own:

The sheer stink of my hometown woke me before dawn. The oil refineries and chemical plants gave the whole place a rotten-egg smell. The right wind could bring you a whiff of the Gulf, but that was rare. Plus the place was in a swamp, so whatever industrial poisons got pumped into the sky just seemed to sink down and thicken in the heat. I later learned that Leechfield at that time was the manufacturing site for Agent Orange…. In the fields of gator grass, you could see the ghostly outline of oil rigs bucking in slow motion…. In the distance, giant towers rose from each refinery, with flames that turned every night’s sky an odd, acid-green color…. Then there were the white oil-storage tanks, miles of them, like the abandoned eggs of some terrible prehistoric insect.

(Mary Karr’s father, Pete Karr, is a member of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union.)


In Cherry, Karr concedes, with characteristic irony:

The town tolerated affliction with more grace than most places I’ve lived. They had to, for we were, as populations go, teeming with chemical and genetic mutation. Toxic air, I suppose, cooked up part of the human stew. Plus there was inbreeding galore. People disapproved of marriage between first cousins, but it happened, and at least one boy I knew was rumored to have knocked up his sister. Three kids in my grade school contracted and later died from leukemia and bone cancer…. Before we lined up at the elementary school for sugar cubes in paper cups, the polio bug ran through us, for there were stagnant ponds a plenty, and we worried little about wading in ditches to catch crawfish after a heavy rain, even times you could see the encephalitic mosquito eggs afloat on the surface.

And the only available cheese is Velveeta.

When, near the dramatic conclusion of Cherry, the sixteen-year-old Mary undergoes a nightmare acid trip, for all her stylistic virtuosity Karr is hard put to match, let alone outdo, the Texas-Bosch landscapes she has previously created.

It has frequently been remarked that memoirs are flooding the marketplace, and that the motive behind this fecundity is not a good one. The urge to confess in print, on TVtalk shows, in person would seem to be a dominant characteristic of our time, an acknowledgment of a failure of imagination. (As if “imagining” the pattern of one’s own life were an easy exercise; as if painting a self-portrait isn’t the most challenging of an artist’s tasks.) Yet it can be argued that the confessional mode is at the root of numberless great works of prose from Augustine’s Confessions to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and that the most ambitious twentieth-century novels, Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, are wholly memoirist, suffused with the obsessive wish to memorialize life and its experience of a highly particularized world. Poetry as disparate as that of William Wordsworth, D.H. Lawrence, and Sylvia Plath is made from similar motives. Long regarded as a coolly Modernist work of collage, an amalgam of seemingly impersonal, disinterested voices springing from no evident emotional center, Eliot’s Waste Land is now seen as intensely personal. To relate a writer’s work back to autobiographical sources need not diminish its significance, but may in fact enhance our awe at the ingenuity with which the merely personal is transmogrified into art.

Contemporary memoirs tend to divide informally into two types: the coming-of-age memoir that reads like an “authentic” version of the autobiographical novel, and the memoir of catastrophe. In the former, we follow an individual, usually a young person, through a portion of his or her life; the structure of such memoirs may seem episodic, but has its internal logic and rhythms:how I came to be who I am.1 By contrast, the memoir of catastrophe focuses upon a single season or dramatic event in the memoirist’s life; the technique may be synecdoche, the use of the symbolic part for the whole; or, as in a crisis-driven memoir like William Styron’s radically distilled Darkness Visible, an account of the author’s depression, the remainder of the life fades into the background.2

The coming-of-age memoir has the advantage of leisurely development; the memoir of catastrophe has the advantage of a concentrated focus. The one offers amplitude, the other a narrower, suspenseful concentration. Obviously, both types of memoirs share salient characteristics and both can be wonderful, or disappointing, depending upon that elusive factor we call “style”—voice. Though the memoir purports to be an account of actual events, it isn’t journalism or history, which had better supply us with verifiable, corroborative truth; a memoir is a literary text. This is to say that it consists of words artfully, and arbitrarily, arranged. Not ideas, not true-life adventures, not facts, and not “profound” themes yield memorable works of art, for art by its nature is idiosyncratic and indefinable and aspires to uniqueness.

Each memoir is sui generis, like any work of fiction. The very act of putting one’s inchoate life into words, arranging it in chapter divisions, giving these divisions titles, deciding upon strategic opening and closing sentences, and so forth, is obviously an act of creation, or re-creation; an act of fiction-writing since it involves a purposefully chosen language and our lives are “alive”—not narrated. The memoir is to be distinguished from the diary, a presumably day-by-day chronicling of life in media res, and its vision is retrospective: the root of “memoir” is after all “memory.” Though the memoir may be narrated in the historic present tense, to impart an air of breathlessness and suspense, its ultimate perspective is past tense: the memoirist is gazing back, and may at any time dramatically bring us into his or her present tense which, in terms of the memoir, is future tense. (In The Autobiog-raphy of Malcolm X, for instance, a chapter concludes bluntly: “All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did. If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.” How I came to be who I am is the continuous subtext.) In a yet more disarming gesture, retrospective vision in the memoir makes the reader feel privileged by being taken into the memoirist’s confidence. (As at the conclusion to the harrowing opening chapter of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: “In the twenty years since Iheard this story I have not asked for details nor said my aunt’s name; I do not know it…. My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her….”)


The Liars’ Club is a luminous account of childhood amid unreliable, unpredictable adults: Mother, Father looming like demigods in a crackerbox house in Leechfield, Texas; and so it’s akin to a coup de théâtre to see them, and Leechfield, through the abruptly adult eyes of Mary Karr, the writer self-conscious in her task even as she’s still in thrall to the emotional undercurrents of her childhood. Returning to tend to her dying father, Karr is shocked by the now financially devastated and depopulated Leechfield, for one quality of ugliness would seem to be durability; the memoirist confides in the reader:

I set down in my journal the businesses we passed that night: nail-sculpting salon, knickknack shop, trophy store, aerobic-dance studio, K-9 dog-training school. There was a diet center that sported a plywood cutout of a pink pig…. The bubble coming from this pig’s mouth held this phrase: A New Way To Lose Weight Without Starving to Death…. You could also get chemotherapy in a modern cinder-block building, which didn’t surprise me since the town formed one of the blackest squares on the world cancer map. (It’s still right up there with Bhopal and Chernobyl.)

A writer’s journal! Can this account for the minuscule details of Karr’s childhood? (Obviously not. The journal is composed mostly after-the-fact.) Though the primary focus of The Liars’ Club is Mary’s childhood, and that of Cherry is adolescence, yet the powerful ending of The Liars’ Club takes us into a present when the narrator is an adult, while Cherry, to its disadvantage, ends somewhat abruptly in the past with the seventeen-year-old Mary Karr, besotted by surfing and psychedelia, and a yearning for sexual adventure, planning to leave home for Los Angeles with (male)druggie companions in a rattletrap truck. Ideally, Cherry should be read in tandem with The Liars’ Club, which yields a more expansive vision, though certainly it stands on its own as a fully achieved, lyrically rendered memoir of a bright young girl’s coming-of-age in America in the Seventies.

It would have been presumed, when The Liars’ Club appeared in 1995 with much critical acclaim and commercial success, that the brash, mordantly funny memoir was the forty-one-year-old author’s first book, but in fact Karr had published two books of poetry, Abacus (1987) and The Devil’s Tour (1993), and was writing the poems to appear in Viper Rum (1998). Much of Karr’s tersely written, elegiac poetry is steeped in autobiography; without sentiment and without ornamentation; lacking, perhaps, the zest and startling colloquialisms of the memoirs. Close-ups of aging, ailing parents, the long-ago demigods of childhood, provide the most moving subject matter, yet don’t begin to suggest the distinctiveness of personality of Mother and Daddy of the memoirs. The once-beautiful, charismatic mother who could charm an eighty-year-old Texas judge into releasing her daughter, arrested on a drug charge, is now “gnarled as a tree root,” ravaged by illness to a “meat hunk” that manages, still, outrageously, to smoke cigarettes. And Daddy, so compelling a presence in Cherry, is dead, cremated; evoked nostalgically in the poem “The Patient” in which he directs his ten-year-old daughter to put him down one day when he’s aged and decrepit. The father who drank himself to death haunts the poet: “Why can you not be/reborn all tall to me? If I raise my arms/here in the blind dark, why can you not/reach down now to hoist me up?”

Viper Rum concludes with an essay on poetics, “Against Decoration,” which takes on, with commendable chutzpah, neoformalism in contemporary American poetry (“obscurity of character,” “foggy physical world,” “overuse of meaningless references,” “metaphors that obscure rather than illuminate,” “linguistic excess for no good reason”) and such mandarin poets as Amy Clampitt (“Clampitt’s purple vocabulary sounds to me like a parody of the Victorian silk Pound sought to unravel”) and James Merrill (“Merrill…may well have been the first emperor of the new formalism. I contend that this emperor wore no clothes—or, to use a more accurate metaphor, that the ornamental robes existed, but the emperor himself was always missing.”) Karr’s passion for poetry is evident in her unfashionable willingness to speak polemically, charging that much of contemporary poetry is precious, vapid, and obscure; and stating that poetry should be, following Horace, dulce et util, “sweet and useful.” No poetry can be worthwhile, Karr argues, that lacks emotional content and clarity. Surely the same is true for prose?

If Cherry is less steeped in mystery and wonder, thus in suspense, than The Liars’ Club, it’s because its protagonist is older, more canny, analytical, self-conscious. Mother and Father are beginning to lose their power and will become, by the memoir’s end, “smaller somehow” than they once were. The first words of Cherry strike a chord of flight, freedom: “No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars.” The vision is thrilling, romantic: “Your young body is instantly a fresh-lit arrow notched and drawn back and about to be loosed.” Yet the adolescent Mary who has imagined herself a rebel is rather hurt by her parents’ willingness to let her go to Los Angeles with a gang of drug-taking friends and a mere one hundred dollars: “…Your mother’s unbridled enthusiasm for this half-baked enterprise of yours sets a cold wind blowing through you.” Yet, had Mary’s parents tried to stop her, she would surely have left in any case, determined to plunge into the frenzied life of the drugged-out era: “When the blind seer in The Odyssey foretold the loss of all companions, that portent went unheeded.”

But Cherry is the prelude to California, a pitiless examination of Leechfield, Texas, and a lyrically detailed preparation for the adolescent Mary’s reckless plunge into the unknown. The memoir takes us through Mary’s elementary school years (“our names ran together like beads on a string, John-andBobbieClariceandCindyandLittleMary [as opposed to Big Mary, who was Mary Ferrell]”) with a scrupulosity reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, a darker examination of the secret lives of prepubescent girls; through Mary’s early infatuations with boys (“Time will never again stretch to the silky lengths it reaches that spring when you and Phil first sit entangled in his car, the odor of narcissus and jasmine and crab-apple blossoms blowing through the open windows on black wind. Nor will kisses ever again evolve into such baroque forms, delicate as origami in their folds and bendings”) and her first sexual experiences, which leave her initially blissful, then abruptly disillusioned (“Once you get to [Phil’s] dorm room, you find the odor of old pizza unfathomably discouraging”).

A rocky, rebellious adolescence is characterized by an increasing estrangement from adults (“Without math, you’ll wind up being no more than a common prostitute,” smugly predicts the principal of Leechfield High) and involves a tentative suicide attempt by way of Anacin tablets washed down with orange juice (“Having cried yourself quiet, you now lie down in the bed and cross hands over your chest and arrange the skirt so your underpants aren’t gaping out at everybody. In this pose, you wait to die”) that ends, fortunately, in vomiting.

Much of the latter part of Cherry concerns the young heroine’s initiation into drugs at age fifteen: a friend’s brother provides “valium by the packet and even birth control pills in round spaceship-like compacts…. Plus there are colored pills for any mood—methamphetamine (black mollies and white crosses), opiate derivatives like codeine, phenobarb in every dose level, nembutal (yellow jackets), seconal (red birds).” Plus pot, of course, and LSD. Lots of LSD. Smack, or heroin, holds little romance: “The one time you blammed heroin, you puked your way into nod-off, waking up astonished that guys would steal TVs for that stuff.” Though Cherry ultimately makes a statement against drugs, noting their malevolent power to permanently alter personality for the worse, the reader is likely to be impressed, if not incredulous, that an individual who has so lavishly experimented with drugs can have survived to write even a coherent sentence, let alone draw conclusions from her experience: “With the aid of hallucinogens, you set off like some pilgrim whose head teems with marvels and vistas, baptismal rivers from which you plan to emerge purified. But what’s longed for usually bears no resemblance to what you find.” Funnily, Mary’s most phantasmagoric acid trip yields her a platitude of stunning irony: “There’s no place like home.”

Most readers will consider Karr extremely forgiving of her improvident, immature, hard-drinking parents. That she loves them both—and doesn’t wish to judge them harshly—is clear. There is something chilling, however, about a father telling his ten-year-old daughter that she can do anything she’s “big enough” to do; a father who “you’ll hear…has a mistress much younger than he is, a waitress, whose husband…will put a bullet first through her skull, then his own.” Mother, the red-haired siren of The Liars’ Club who has had seven marriages to six husbands (having married Daddy twice), continues her habit of disappearing from the household without warning or apology, arousing anxiety in both her daughters. She’s an intelligent and perhaps even talented woman, but wholly unreliable. When Mary is arrested in a drug bust, she comes to fetch her home from jail, but shows not a scintilla of maternal concern: “Apparently, even getting thrown into jail doesn’t register a jag in your mother’s heartbeat.” In a reversal of one’s expectation, given Mary Karr’s youthful rebelliousness, it’s Mother who insists upon her going on the pill (at age fourteen), while Mary protests that she neither has nor wants a steady boyfriend; unhearing, Mother reiterates, “If you want to have sex, so be it. Just don’t get pregnant.”

Like The Liars’ Club, Cherry ends on a resolute, upbeat note, with Mary’s experience of a girlfriend’s kindness and in her realization that she possesses, for all her swings of mood and fortune, a “Same Self” that will endure. Yet the memoir’s lingering tone is brooding, melancholy; beneath the sparkling prose surface there’s a “repository of silence” we hear all too clearly. No child, however eloquent, should have to grow up so young.

This Issue

November 2, 2000