Nonfiction: "Lit," by Mary Karr.
One pithy response in the November issue of O: the Oprah Magazine sums up the ordeal award-winning author and poet Mary Karr describes in her third memoir.
In the magazine, Karr concludes the sentence "I act most like myself ..." with "all the time. I'm doomed to act like myself even when it's inconvenient."
That remark explains in a nutshell how even after attaining all she ever wanted -- escape from her poor East Texas hometown, a husband whose patrician genes might offset her damaged ones, an adorable son, a book of poems published -- Karr still finds herself slinking off daily to the one place she feels she can control things.
In reality, it's the tiny back landing of her house where, baby monitor in one hand, she drinks herself into a stupor, much as her father had done for years in the family's garage.
If you've read Karr's previous and best-selling memoirs ("The Liar's Club," "Cherry"), which covered her difficult childhood and early adolescence growing up the daughter of alcoholics, you have an idea of what to expect from "Lit."
A book about a woman's descent into alcoholism and the heartbreaking dissolution of her marriage may sound like complete torture to read, but it is hard to put down.
Yes, the story is bound to be a bit of a downer, but it is also utterly compelling, featuring Karr's cleverness and wit, and a string of people offering her a second chance, most having somehow found redemption themselves.
Written in almost flawless image-filled prose and moving seamlessly from present to past and back again, "Lit" begins with an open letter to Karr's son, Dev. Her goal here, she tells him, is to explain the "scorched parts" of his childhood to offer some context to the memories she feels may haunt him the way her own haunted her.
Indeed, so determined was Karr to be the perfect mother, she almost doomed herself to failure. Obsessing over his every squirm and cough, neglecting her literary aspirations and struggling to make ends meet despite her husband's wealthy origins, Karr finds herself becoming more and more dependent on the bottle.
Her drinking is the crux of the book and also its most frustrating aspect.
It's not that she stumbles frequently on her road to recovery; that's almost to be expected. What is annoying is the number of people who either unwittingly or irresponsibly play a part in her problem:
The parents who introduce their young daughter to alcohol and who later hand her a bottle at the worst possible moments.
The almost unbelievably aloof husband she can't help blaming because his love hasn't filled the "black hole I've been pouring booze into."
Of course, it's Karr herself who must finally face down her insecurities before she can stop drinking. Once she does, everything falls into place, with a little help, and she comes to believe from the higher power she continues to deny even as she clings to his assistance.
Karr also gets help from earthly beings, but the people who loom largest in "Lit" are her parents. The mother with whom she always butts heads may seem the most significant of the two, but it is her father who, as Karr might say, put the fire in her belly and the grit in her veins, that she draws upon again and again.
With her ability to tell a good story and her flair for written expression -- "Lit's" title not only describes Karr's drunken years, it's also an appropriate pun reflecting literature's recurring role in her life -- Karr has found another way to leave a mark and to make peace with herself, her backstory and those around her.
First Published December 6, 2009 12:00 am