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!”
Success spoiled her only for a single day—specifically, August 6, 1995, when The Liars’ Club entered the New York Times’s best-seller list, and she returned from a Houston bookstore appearance in the afternoon to find her hotel room awash in flowers. The next day, while walking through Houston’s Intercontinental Airport, Karr saw a uniformed man walking toward her with a bouquet. She arranged her most grateful smile—and then the flower delivery man walked right past her. Karr immediately picked up a pay phone and called her friend Tobias Wolff, the celebrated writer. After recounting what had just happened, she asked him, “Am I an asshole?”
“Yes,” he informed her. “But because you told the story on yourself, you’re a recovering asshole.”
A year later, Mary Karr has even more fame from which to recover. The Liars’ Club has remained on the Times’s paperback best-seller list since March. The book’s movie rights have been sold to 9 1/2 Weeks producer Frank Konigsberg, and Karr’s planned sequel about her adolescence is certain to garner a huge advance. In the meantime, the success of The Liars’ Club has been seen throughout the publishing industry as a sign of the commercial renaissance of the memoir as a genre, giving rise to a tidal wave of literary narcissism. In the span of a year Karr the poet and professor has become Karr the master memoirist and, now, Karr the conference panelist. Interviewers have asked her to account for the Death of the Novel; some have in fact blamed her for said death. A reporter from Time called Karr to solicit her opinion of Oprah Winfrey, since, as the reporter put it, “Oprah’s the one who started all this confessional stuff.”
“Actually,” replied Karr as gently as she could, “I think Saint Augustine got there before Oprah did.”
Not all of this is as ludicrous as it sounds. Karr’s interest in memoirs goes way back, she says: “My mother being a portrait artist helped develop my interest in character and in the shape of a singular life.” As a young poet, she pored over the great biographies of Samuel Johnson and John Keats. While obtaining her master’s degree, Karr became a fan of fiction writer Harry Crews’ surly autobiography, A Childhood; she also read the memoirs of Frank Conroy, Geoffrey Wolff, and Geoffrey’s brother, Tobias, whose unsparing This Boy’s Life was a major inspiration. As a young professor, Karr taught courses on memoirs, but the book list was regrettably male dominated, and as an academic ambition, she hoped to change that.
There had long been a memoir in Mary Karr, “standing in line for me to write it,” she says. God knows she had the material: born and raised in the dismal oil patch; daughter of a flamboyant alcoholic mother who during a psychotic episode hallucinated that she had killed her children; sexually assaulted twice before the age of ten; a chronic runaway who somehow persuaded officials at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, to take her in on early admission. How this odyssey led, by the mid-eighties, to a rarefied academic career and recognition as a brilliant poet is itself miraculous. The renowned Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, now a Harvard professor of rhetoric, once asked Karr, “How did you ever get out of that place?” Astonished, she replied, “I got on a bus. How did you get out of Northern F—ing Ireland?” The equanimity with which she regarded her past especially amazed her new acquaintances. When Tobias Wolff introduced Karr to his agent, Amanda Urban, the latter was entranced by the East Texas poet’s total absence of hostility: “She could tell these incredible stories,” says Urban, “and never once felt sorry for herself. Not only was she thriving, she was making dinner party chatter out of it.”
The past was not so benign as all that, of course. Living down the demons was its own odyssey. “I spent a lot of money going to doctors,” Karr says. “I haven’t been able to stay married, and I don’t know if I ever will.” She was compelled to swear off liquor and spent most of her evenings at home with books. Her dinner monologues and academic curiosities notwithstanding, Mary Karr’s writing already reflected a yearning to reconcile herself with the madness in her past. Her best poems, like “Coleman” (“I wanted only to escape/the brutal limits of that town/its square chained yards, pumps/that bowed so mindlessly to earth,/the raging pistons of that fallen dynasty.”), were not merely set in East Texas but also spangled with the horror and rage of the author’s upbringing. In academic circles, Karr had created a stir by decrying the prissiness of new formalist poetry—“The highbrow doily-making that passes for art today,” she scornfully wrote in one essay—but it might be fair to suggest that Karr felt somewhat mocked by the work of the neoformalists. After all, they could rise above the unholy mess of living; she couldn’t, not for the life of her.
One evening in 1989, after hearing another round of lurid Leechfield stories, Urban told Karr, “I wish you’d write me a book proposal.” Karr had recently ditched an attempt to craft a novel out of her life story. (“The weird thing was, I just used fiction as an excuse to correct history,” she says. “The character who was me did volunteer work at the local nursing home. I was doctoring the facts to make myself look better.”) She was flattered by Urban’s offer but did nothing with it. Two years later, in March of 1991, Urban ran into Karr at a hotel bar in Manhattan and said, “Where’s my book proposal?” Karr was more attentive this time. Her twelve-year marriage had just collapsed; she was flat broke and didn’t have a car. She agreed to send the agent three chapters, along with a cover letter explaining the need for a woman’s narrative.
Four months later, Karr’s eighty-page manuscript arrived in Urban’s office at International Creative Management. Urban wasted no time sending The Liars’ Club out for auction. Viking made the highest of three offers, in the range of $50,000. The advance was parceled out over the two and a half years it took Karr to write the book, enabling the author to pay her always enormous long-distance phone bills. The first installment went toward a used Toyota Corolla.
Today Mary Karr could buy a Toyota dealership. But aside from a recent trip with her nine-year-old son to Disney World and the odd spree at Bloomingdale’s—“I’m a big shoe slut,” she confesses—Karr still lives and teaches in Syracuse, with no plans to ratchet up her lifestyle. The Corolla is still running, and she hopes it will outlast the inanities that have accompanied her fame. “A guy from Newsweek called me up,” she says with her seen-it-all smirk, “and he said, ‘I’m doing an article on all these memoirs, and I’ve talked to all these psychiatrists who’ve said that the process of writing memoirs is nothing like therapy.’
“And I’m like, ‘No kidding, buddy! In therapy, you pay them! In memoirs, they pay you!’&rdquo