COULD MARY KARR GO HOME AGAIN? That was the lingering question last summer for the 41-year-old Syracuse University professor. Her East Texas memoir, The Liars’ Club, had met with so much critical adulation, from reviewers as diverse as Molly Ivins and the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani, that the book’s single dissenter—a cranky critic in Tennessee who felt that Karr didn’t treat her one-legged grandmother very charitably—must have felt like the publicist for the Flat Earth Society. The Liars’ Club had become the read among literary wags, a hit among dysfunctional yuppies, and a growing favorite among the Kmart set. It was that rarest of publications, the literate page-turner—though its success came at the obvious expense of Leechfield, the pseudonym Karr chose for her Port Arthur–area hometown. In light of Karr’s portrayal of Leechfield as a greasy wasteland haloed by DDT, one had to wonder if the townsfolk might be tempted to, in local parlance, stomp her a new mudhole.
Karr got the verdict the day she phoned an old classmate. The woman’s mother answered the phone. “Well,” said the elderly Leechfield woman, “I read your book.”
“Yes, ma’am,” came the author’s cautious reply.
A diplomatic silence followed, then: “Some pretty rough language in there.”
A longer pause.
“Course, that’s how you were.”
“Well. We still love you anyway.”
It would be rather hard not to forgive this amiable, wearily attractive potty-mouth who calls her mother “my little huckleberry,” randomly quotes Milton and Yeats, and then observes of some dubious distinction, “That’s like winning a shitting contest.” The same self-leavening spirit that balances her intellect and her earthiness is what has made Mary Karr’s memoir one of the most resonant literary triumphs of recent years. The Liars’ Club is a celebration of endurance, mercilessly aware but mercifully loving—a story of a crazily unique family that, in its telling, somehow throws an unerring light on every family in America. Hers is not the sanitized Ozzie and Harriet depiction of yesteryear, nor today’s version, in which, as Karr delicately puts it, “every father is sodomizing his children with a mop handle.” Instead, Karr’s family is an outrageous flop in everything except its determination to hang together. All of Leechfield can surely identify with that, which is probably why classmates and ex-boyfriends keep turning up at Karr’s frequent Texas bookstore appearances, along with old coots who bellow during the question-answer periods, “Hey, Mary, I knew your Uncle Crook!”