Having written an autobiography, the reviewer sought to compare the Pen/Martha Albrand Award winning memoir The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr with his own of which a bookseller said that memoirs, “Even of famous people, are not easy” to sell.
I did not know of Mary Karr before her book, but as he suspected, she was about to correct him as to the punch line of a joke he made about autobiographers: “There is no one more lonely than an autobiographer who you’ve never heard of.”
At issue in the judgment of autobiographies is do we want to read a book about another person? In the case of Karr, how does she interest us in her life?
Initially, she introduces us with immediacy to her “sharpest memory…of a single instant,” where a doctor in a yellow golf shirt stands over her pulling at the hem of her nightgown. He asked her to show him “marks on her body.”
Karr said she liked the doctor but never trusted him. The moment remained frozen in her brain for three decades.
We later learn that she never had to lift her nightgown and was lead away by the sheriff, who was looking. They had taken her mother “for being nervous” and they went to look for her father at the plant where he was working the graveyard shift.
There is more than just good writing in Karr’s descriptions; she moves us deeper with the nature of her mother’s spouses and the seeming shiftiness of her origins. Her mother carried Das Kapital in her purse for years and her father was an active member of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. He was a picket-line brawler.
She uses emotive-descriptive words like “dragged” her mother out of New York or “slick-talking hick” and “buffaloed.” Her father “hit people and they fell down.”
In a single sentence, she describes her mother’s “economic decline[:]…she’d gone from a country house in Connecticut to a trailer park in Leechfield [Texas].”
Other elements that make The Liar’s Club an interesting read follow from the fact Karr never lets up with her inviting style and tidbits that seem to dwarf our experiences. Life, we learn from Karr, is an eloquent adventure filled with people we have never had to get close to but who manifest personality red flags that make for good conversation but not comfortable reality. Extremes and drama often go hand-in-hand. In real life, we would rather existence were not filled with tumultuousness.
In Karr, we see a good example of the statement by Christabel LaMotte in A. S. Byatt’s book Possession (page 47): “If you can order your Thoughts and shape them into Art, good: if you can live in the obligations and affections of Daily Life, good. But do not get into the habit of morbid Self-examination. Nothing so unfits a [person] for producing good work, or for living usefully. The Lord will take care of the second of these — opportunities will be found. The first is a matter of Will.”‘ We can also assert that perhaps Karr’s is an autobiography that William Gass in his Harper’s (May 1994) article, “The Art Of Self – Autobiography In An Age Of Narcissism” explained as one of four or five we would be willing to let represent human being.
Still, as I am an autobiographical writer, I realize the details of Karr’s life are not his and although he feels she is a better writer, she romanticizes reality and seems to forget those moments filled with color changes in leaves, dust coming in the windows, a rainy day, or just the silence of one’s thoughts while waiting for the next departure, for example. There is a different feel to Karr’s autobiography than to his. It is that feel that manifests the worth to the writer of having written. It becomes the process of writing not that there probably should only be four or five autobiographies. Karr’s is a moment of communicative eloquence, an eloquence of the idea of autobiography that stands for a moment awarded aptly and set within the confines of a Penguin Press cover and made of soft, comfortable pages that turn gently and process us through a series of words and phrases that help us to dream. Karr’s words are the high art of literature. They are the charcoal residues from the burning of life. Karr’s is a gift from a person of substance and character. She has made life interesting.
On page 14, Karr reveals the nature of her title. Her “daddy” used to go under the guise of paying bills to “the American Legion or in the back room of Fisher’s Bait Shop” to play dominoes on his days off. She said her father used to tell her stories about his childhood to a point that they seemed more vivid to her than her own. He told these stories while playing dominoes. Karr said an angry wife named the gathering The Liar’s Club. This is where Karr went with her father and he told her a magical statement when one of the men said he was spoiling her. “Leave her alone,” he said when he gave her a quarter to buy a soda, “she can do anything she’s big enough to do, cain’t you, Pokey?” The implication is that early on Karr would be privy to a freedom and respect as to judgment, even a Vice-president Al Gore might not issue. It seems Karr was treated as the young adult a child is. From her father, I “guessed,” Karr got her knowledge as to “how to be believed.”
The tale winds around her father telling a story and we are just as seriously tied to the words Karr is telling and we feel the leadership of her father and his control of the audience. Then, another magical moment plays itself with the entry of a black man named Shug, who in this season of her childhood, has a “famous intolerance” for her daddy’s “horseshit” and “tends to up the credibility factor” of her father’s stories when he is around. It warms you amid this on-going affirmative action questioning whether or not a black man needs a handicap to play the game of life. With his “forest-green porkpie hat with the joker from a deck of cards stuck on the side,” you wonder about the Shugs in this world. They have certainly got all the cards to play. Knowing what we know of life, it is not always the stories that count but the credibility we feel that makes us proud and satisfied within the context of real life. Karr allows us philosophical wallowing. She is a sparkler for sociological issues. She treats life as a gentle description of facts. In this case, we see the black person in the context of truth.
In the meantime, the reviewer has read The New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell (Nov. 25, 1996) account of the Texaco controversy, where Gladwell argues that racial civility is a different thing from racial equality. I go back to the Karr text and sees that Shug “is the only black man [she had] ever seen in the Legion, and then only when the rest of the guys [were] there.” Karr is telling the truth. It is the complexity of truth, the differing layers of what is that makes Karr’s words edifying.
Curiously, after Karr announces an evil she feels for not standing up for Shug given an obvious prejudicial response to him, we sense an appropriateness to Cooter’s condemnation. Shug interrupts a joke with the need to be serious: “Wasn’t no such thing,” he says, “if you shut up, I can tell your thickheaded self what they was.”
Cooter interrupts him: “Let him tell it.” We see there is no simple position on this interaction although Karr remarks: “Cooter is bothered by the fact…Shug is colored, and takes any chance to scold him…” We understand inappropriate responses by people less intuitive or versatile. Shug seems to have made a conversational error by not knowing Karr’s father was lining up for a punch line. Karr says there are rules for not defending black men and she “lay[s] low.” We have two violations of the truth by Karr. One, relates to her sensitivity as to the negativity by Cooter toward Shug, but she was wrong to feel guilty. The rhetorical context made Shug’s response inappropriate. He committed a faux pas. This is where Karr’s apologetics gets in the way of her better judgment.
As a child she is perhaps aware of the negativity toward Shug. It is a kind of negativity that is perhaps not worth the protection of a punch line, but we realize a person not aware of the subtleties of conversation and about to destroy the flow of a joke by taking the facts seriously, leaves us cold. I find this example profound in the context of current affirmative action debate. If you take race out of this example, you have an individual who needs to lighten up. You have another human being (Cooter) as Karr knew from experience, who needs to ask himself why he is “bothered by…colored[s].” I believe that as Karr’s writing evokes discussion she is doing us a favor by helping us contextualize our social problems. Shugs and Cooters remain despite the fact times have changed. Shug needs to come up with a retort that reinstates his credibility, Cooter could have been more tactful.
On page 64, I was entranced, partly by the magnificence of Karr’s description of a sexual encounter, partly because in parallel, it happened to him though he was much younger. He remembers the leopard bedspread and the death of a Kennedy on TV as his gorgeous baby-sitter in a silver lingerie had her legs wide open. The sticky red flesh and her seductive words invited him. I remember also in a cave of dead ivy the ugly girl, who showed him her cleft following the removal of her jeans and panties. There were other moments like these. No matter the victim, it is an odd recollection. What is arousing and at the same time wrong is this juicy companionship of dick and sinkhole. Nothing allows me, perhaps as a man, to treat this event (of Karr’s) as anything more than a cousin to his early sexual encounters. What I long for is the innocence of a beginning that does not know, because in a crowded room he has not the balls to ask the beautiful face to an empty place, to do it the right way, which is to slip with equal interest into the well of darkness and realize one’s dreams.
It is disturbing how Karr’s rape and her “picturing him reading this” struggles softly, if even at all, for in my mind, her “it couldn’t have taken long” or “diddling” are like crayons and not loud gallons of paint on the canvas of her violation. Eventually, with the shortened, nonchalant tellings, you realize by way of an evolution that the details are difficult. The heinousness of the act, what you could only relate to as a man playing a game of “torture” (or doctor) now becomes misintentioned friendship, a devious trick, an ugly moment when, “…I look up from the sloping page, to see if he’s buying it so far, the whole mood of the room has shifted. The zipper of his chinos is level with my eyes…”
I trail off into memories with the gentleness of her words. As a great writer, Karr helps readers to see themselves.
When Karr describes her father’s slow, effacing death near the end of the book, you are again aroused to your own summation. Words that relate to what she has told you, pour with synonimity:
Tears are for oneself
At the bedside of death
We see in the rest home
Old bodies pushed in wheelchairs
Old lips we’d never kiss
to taste that aged saliva
to see around a corner,
where someone tries
to wait with hope
what comes with dismal cynicism –
the bleak immobility of our disrepair
Interlocked, these concepts are until
the warm liquid fills the cup
(at our side) and we hear
the waste of our thoughts
that lasted a lifetime.
As I have learned, a good autobiography is an autobiography that relates to our lives by activating our memories.