The Liars’ Club
Over the last few years I’ve read several of the big memoir phenoms that are part of a memoir revival that’s been going on in America for the last twenty or so years. The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr’s story of growing up in brutal East Texas and Antelope, Colorado, in the fifties and sixties, is often seen as the first book of this revival.
The metatheme for most memoirs is Overcoming Adversity, or at least Surviving Adversity. The Liars’ Club is much more of the latter. Both of Karr’s parents were alcoholics. Leechfield, Texas, where most of the action takes place, won national awards as one of the ugliest and most unhealthy towns in the U.S. It’s a town where ”…the only thing a woman might dream for…was a deep-freeze filled with deer meat she’d cleaned and dressed herself.” All women, that is, but Karr’s mother. She rages at how she’s sunk socially so much that she has to actually live in such a place as Leechfield, drowning her anger in drink. Dad works at the refinery, comes home and drinks. Mary and her sister Lecia absorb and dodge the fallout as best they can. Their dad teaches them to become scrappers, to fight. Soon they become feared throughout town, even by most boys.
As I said, Leechfield is filthiness itself. Once, the sisters join other children in following the mosquito truck as it goes through town. Interestingly, this scene is duplicated years later in Bill Bryson’s Thunderbolt Kid memoir. Was inhaling mosquito repellent a rite of passage in Mid-Century America?
The East Texas lingo is one of the strengths of the books and it’s here in all its hardscrabble glory: “Grandma…was such a ringtailed bitch.” “He’s got the mulligrubs.” Rain falls on the back porch “like a cow pissing on a flat rock.” “Mother…was Nervous.”
Mom and Dad divorce. Grandma dies; Mom comes into an inheritance, blows it. She takes the kids to Colorado, marries Hector, a Mexican-American, another alcoholic. They fight. She buys a bar in Antelope and runs it. Antelope has not only seen better days, it’s past its adequate days. The girl’s public school is an experimental bad joke. Mom splits up with Hector, takes the girls back to Leechfield, reunites with husband one. The last section, from 1980, concerns the death of Karr’s father. He smokes and drinks himself to death.
Does it seem unbearable? Well, it isn’t. There is humor scattered through the book. Karr has a smaller reputation as a poet, and her poet’s eye and ear are exhilaratingly strong throughout. Here is Karr’s on her mom: “She pinched her mouth into a stiff little asterisk at that.” A hurricane throws a jellyfish up on the beach: “I spied a huge cabbage-head jellyfish…It looked like a free-floating brain knocked out of somebody’s skull.” “When [dad] finally curled on his side…he looked like something dry you’d shake out of a shell.” I could cite a hundred equally good bits.
The ugly beauty of The Liars’ Club is very rare and sometimes miraculous. Like Sylvia Plath, Mary Karr is proof that poets can come out of the most unlikely places. She’s been called a writer’s writer, and that she is, and a lot more besides. This is memoir writing at the apex.