Last December 2015, I was walking with a friend for the first time in five years. We were walking and talking about writing: writing memoirs in particular. My friend thought she might have a few books in her waiting to get into publication. She was thinking of writing a memoir and was sounding me to find out if I could tell her anything valuable from a literature teacher’s point of view. I’m sure I didn’t.
She asked me if I had ever read Mary Karr’s book The Liar’s Club. I said I had read it. I remembered that I had listened to Mary Karr talk on NPR about her book in 2010, when she re-issued it. I bought the book, didn’t find the immediate enthusiasm to start it and shelved it for a while. One day, again on NPR, I listened to Stephen King profess has admiration for Mary Karr and for her book The Liar’s Club. I dusted off my copy and started to read it due to King’s enthusiasm for Karr and the book. I remember not being too fond of the idea of a Liar’s Club, and I must have dismissed it after a few pages because there is no way I could have read that book then, or now, without simply falling in love with the language, Mary Karr’s style, and her voice. The book is all about voice and that voice speaks to a broad audience.
I could not have read more than three pages. If I didn’t like the book, and didn’t think much of Mary Karr, then I could not have read it. Maybe my problem was that it was set in Texas…who knows? Bald fact: I didn’t read the book. Mea culpa.
My response to my friend was that I had indeed read the book a long time ago and that I didn’t think much of it, or much of Mary Karr as a writer. A dark shadow crossed this woman’s face. She was thinking deeply to herself, “This guy’s an idiot.” Her formally good opinion of my literary opinion stock dropped through the floor. I can’t be sure what her exact thought was coursing through her mind, but if I had to guess, it probably went something like this: “You are a pompous, arrogant dumbass, who doesn’t know good writing when you read it.” Or something to that effect. People don’t think highly of ridiculous criticism of obvious good writing, especially writing they personally enjoy. Fact. Been there.
Last week, after I had to cancel what would have been a third walk in five years, and first in three months, I decided to reread The Liar’s Club in order to find out why this book is adored by so many readers, and by my friend.
People read books for a number of good reasons. Some people like the action in a book, others are happy to read a simple narrative; still others like to read a particular genre, or read about an interesting topic; I am happy to read books others find interesting. I will always find a book engrossing, if the language talks to me with interesting metaphors, images, rhythm, tone and sentencing (variation of sentence lengths); I am a hopelessly attracted to novels that read more like poetry, and novels where I can’t distinguish between whether, or not the language has been deliberately chosen and polished, or if the author is just that damn amazing of an artist, and writes beautiful language effortlessly and naturally.
Mary Karr’s particular genius is that she understands that the sense of smell is intimately related to memory. If you are writing a memoir, it makes great sense to use the smells that evoke memories liberally. She is a master of placing an evocative image of a particular smell to introduce her recollection of a place, or event. The entire novel derives its sense of place through her numerous appeals to our sense of smell.
Mary Karr had me from her first image when she connects the sense of smell to her memory of the nutty smell of coffee and the background smell of her hometown: “Somebody had made a pot of coffee that laid a nutty smell over the faint chemical stink from the gasoline fire in the back yard. Every one tries to conjure up the sense of smell to fill out their narrative by using the smell of bacon, or coffee, and then abandons the sense of smell as a tool to evoke a minor image. Karr uses coffee, cigar smoke, Salem cigarette smoke, and then moves on to much more masterful smell images throughout the book. She repeats the coffee image: She remembers picking up her dad at work: “He brought into the cab the odors of stale coffee and of the cleaning solvent he used to get the oil off his hands.” Later in the book, when Pokey reunites with her dad, she uses “He’d been drinking black coffee during his shift, the coffee that pored like tar from the foreman’s beat-up percolator. That coffee brought my whole former Daddy back. I knew the solvent he used to strip grease from his hands and the Lava soap applied with a fingernail brush. (She moves to a tactile image: “His chin bristles scraped my neck.”) then she shifts back to smell to complete the child and father reunion: “And he must have been sweating from damp or work or worry, for the Tennessee whiskey he’d stood on the tarmac sipping was like the fresh-cut oak coming off him.” It bears repeating: Karr’s genius is her use of smell images to build her memoir because memories are richly remembered around specific smells. Karr makes fun of frozen fart smell which appear as her Dad, Pete, tells a story of “about a dozen of these round fuzzy things rolled our his pant leg. Big as your thumb, and white.” Pete continues the story: “And you ain’t going to guess what happens when they thaw. They pop like firecrackers and let off the biggest stink you ever smelled…” “They was farts?” Daddy slaps the laughs at sucking in his audience. And thus, we are introduced to the humor of the Liar’s Club and Pete’s storytelling through the sense of smell.
Another favorite of mine that takes me right in the car with Karr: “The too-sweet smell of Grandma’s hyacinth perfume hung in the car till Mother lit a Salem.” I know that perfume and I know the smell of Salem (menthol) cigarettes and that sentence takes me back to my mother’s smoking when I rode in the car with her as a youngster, about the same age as Karr is at this point in her narrative.
Karr gains memory-evoking strength just a few sentences later on the page when she remembers: “The sheer stink of my hometown woke me before dawn. The oil refineries and chemical plants gave the whole place a rotten-egg smell.” A positive memory: “The right wind could bring you a whiff of the Gulf, but that was rare.”
That smell leads, a couple of pages later, to this revelation about her hometown: “I later learned that Leechfield at that time was the manufacturing site for Agent Orange, Which surprised me not one bit.” She is remembering arriving in her hometown after an all-night car ride: “That morning, when I woke up lying under the back slant of the windshield, the world smelled not unlike a wicked fart in a close room.”
Another example of Karr’s narrative genius is how she parallels the novel To Kill a Mockingbird without even reaching from her own life to do so. Karr is the Scout Finch of Leechfield, Texas. Both Mary Karr and Jean Louise Finch have nicknames: Pokey and Scout. Both tell the backstory of their hometown while writing about how much they adore their fathers. Scout is no slouch at setting people straight, and neither is Pokey. They both speak in the vernacular, both write in a highly literate narrative form that somehow reaches out and includes the speech sounds and rhythmic cadences of the South. Karr doesn’t appear to deliberately make the connections between the two novels, but there are clear connections in her story. Harper Lee has a unique voice that draws the reader in by telling the story with a child persona: Scout. Karr steps back into her childhood and tells her story as her younger self, modeling her seven year old voice when she asks questions of her sister and parents and then shifting subtly to an adult voice to carry the narration.
Karr lends credibility to her memoir by questioning her remembrance of certain events as though she might not be remembering them as accurately as she lived the events as a child. Both Karr and Lee echo the idea that we don’t remember events as they were, but as we were.
Another comparison to TKM I noticed was Pokey’s comment about running away from home: “What I didn’t know until I finally did leave home at fifteen was that, if I had lit our, nobody would organize any posse to sniff me down.”
Dill observes to Scout that maybe Boo didn’t run away because he had no place to run to. Dill was also the product of a mother who remarried and chose to focus more on herself and her new husband than on her child. You can see that parallel in Pokey’s mom when she divorces Pokey’s dad and remarries destroying the family bond. The children are allowed to choose which parent the wish to live with. To me, this shows the indifference of Pokey’s mom to her children. To her credit, Pokey’s mom later reunites the family.
Does everyone in the South drink to excess? Wow! There are the big drinkers: Aunt Rachel and Bob Ewell in TKM. In The Liar’s Club, everyone is a drunk. They probably don’t problem drink any more in the South than in the North, but drinking is definitely a favorite past time that has detrimental effects on both communities. The Liar’s Club makes glad I live boring, non-drinking life, that no one would actually write about.
I noticed that in Karr’s alcoholic family, each sister was willing, at any time to walk away from the other. I think this is the mark of an alcohol-affected family. For example Pokey says of her loyalty to her sister: “I wished Lecia no particular harm, but if there was only one banana left in the bowl, I would not hesitate to grab it and leave her to do without.” On the other hand, when Lecia, Pokey, and her dad were together, Pokey said, “We were just like the three curved boards for the hull bottom of some boat that only needed gluing and caulking together.
If you are still with me, you might like to think about Karr’s use of pacing to add texture to the story. Throughout the narrative, she leads us down a narrative trail, story by story, stopping and digressing occasionally to illuminate a important connection to the narrative.
The rape story demands a under current of pacing to reinforce how craftily Pokey was cut out of the herd and raped by an older boy. She mentions him. She describes him as evil. She tells how he grooms her. Then she describes the rape as it happens. It all seems to build up gradually, to demonstrate how this evil boy planned the rape. Pokey is left without any recourse to address her rape. She concludes her story by describing him walking off to the ball game, he never rushes; he is confident that he is in complete control of Pokey and Pokey’s will, and he is confident that he will never be found out. The pacing of the story reflects his confidence: slow and deliberate.
A particularly touching dramatic story Karr relates is how Lecia, Pete, and Mary enjoy a cookout in Colorado. Mary remembers it as a Halcyon moment before the family’s tight bond is obliviated by their mother’s selfishness the next day. Mary experiences the best day of her life the day before she faces her worst day.
If I filmed this book, I would choose Adele’s “Hello” as the theme song for the for The Liar’s Club. The book has an most plaintive vibe to it. One can hardly imagine a little girl growing up in such a dysfunctional family and still turning out as close to normal as most of the rest of us are (if we all were truthful about our families).
I have a special . If I really like a book I have read, I rate it by how many copies I buy on Amazon and then send to my reading buddies, or give to my friends. So far, I have given away fifty copies of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, forty copies of Gilbert’s, Eat Pray Love, twenty-five copies of Caroline Knapp’s, Drinking: A Love Story, twenty-five, or thirty copies of Ted Kerosote’s, Merle’s Door. I was so taken with Elizabeth Smart’s Story, that I bought fifty copies of a very expensive hardback to loan to my students. Each book was read over twenty times over a two-year period. That was money well-spend. If I thought I had fifty friends that would actually read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, I would order fifty copies just to start. Sadly, I don’t think I am going to find that level of enthusiasm unless a bunch of folks read this blog and tell me how excited they are about the book.
Thank you, my friend for embarrassing me into reading The Liar’s Club. As with everything else in our relationship, you are right and I am wrong. The abyss will never be bridged except with great book recommendations. I’ll miss those in the future.
This interview and video might pique your interest in reading The Liar’s Club: