When asked my favorite book of 2010, I’m tempted to say, the first 10 pages of Mary Karr’s Lit. The introduction. Nothing more. That’s all I’d read, until a few nights ago.
In the beginning of December, after I’d driven through the snow-covered mountains of North Carolina to attend a concert – a tribute to the 70‘s Memphis band Big Star, for which I’d done the music prep and a bit of orchestrating – I was waiting to meet my cousin, a Seminary student, for lunch one afternoon at a greasy pizza place when I wandered into the nearby Barnes and Noble. I noticed Lit prominently displayed near the front of the store, and, remembering my friend Jeffrey Overstreet’s enthusiastic endorsement, picked it up to find out what all the fuss was about.
Mary Karr is, first and foremost, a poet. She has four books of poetry to her name; the latest, from 2006, Sinners Welcome, includes poems ruminating on her recent conversion to Christianity. But she is probably best known for her three memoirs, with the first, 1995’s Liar’s Club, appearing on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. The blurb on the back of her newest book says: “Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober; becoming a mother by letting go of a mother; learning to write by learning to live. Written with Karr’s relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humor, it is a truly electrifying story of how to grow up – as only Mary Karr can tell it.”
The introduction, those first ten pages I read that afternoon sitting in an over-stuffed chair at Barnes and Noble, is written to her son. She remembers the way she has hurt him, the wounds he carries from childhood, writing that “just as my mother vanished from my young life into a madhouse, so did I vanish when you were a toddler. Having spent much of my life trying to plumb her psychic mysteries, I now find myself occupying her chair as a plumbee. Believe me. It’s a discomfiting sensation.”
“You’re disembarking now, I can see it,” is the way she ends the introduction. “Maybe by telling you my story, you can better tell yours, which is the only way to get home, by which I mean to get free of us.”
In a writing class I attended the end of last summer, at Image Journal’s Glen workshop, Lauren Winner, leading the class, directed our attention to the way one can communicate a world of meanings with just a few words. The way a pastor told her, after her divorce, that God could no longer use her (a passage from her follow-up to Girl Meets God, tentatively titled Still at the time, to be published sometime this year). My mention of a shot of Tennessee whiskey downed in a gulp before lunch after a sermon I once heard, in the essay I was workshopping. Passages that, in place of pages of description and explanation, communicate in just a few words something important about the narrator and the story.
Mary Karr, the poet, choosing each word with careful attentiveness, accomplishes this on almost every page of Lit. Look, for example, at the first paragraph of the first chapter.
“Age seventeen, stringy-haired and halter-topped, weighing in the high double digits and unhindered by a high school diploma, I showed up at the Pacific Ocean, ready to seek my fortune with a truck full of extremely stoned surfers. My family, I thought them to be, for such was my quest – a family I could stand alongside pondering the sea. We stood as the blue water surged toward us in six-foot coils.”
I read that paragraph several times in a row, amazed at how much I knew about the narrator from those seventy-three words, those three sentences. That feeling comes up again and again as one reads, an awe for the kind of writing that communicates so much so eloquently but never seems to get in the way, never seems to be about itself. I’m only on page 50, but I do know this much: run, don’t walk, to find yourself a copy of Mary Karr’s Lit. Take time to savor every sentence, every page. And enjoy.
In the meantime, check out the interview Kristin Russell did with her for the Art House America blog.