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Lit: A Memoir

Life's not fair—if it were, humans would not be so "variably gifted" at narrating the circumstances in which we each find ourselves. Take poet and autobiographer Mary Karr: countless memoirs by others followed her 1995 bestseller The Liars' Club, but few matched its wit and grit, and only a handful approached its generous spirit. Having a hair-raising childhood, it turns out, is compelling only if you write well enough to transcend juvenile grievances and generic insights.

The journey to maturity and sobriety chronicled in Karr's latest memoir, Lit, demanded even greater skill. Not too many people have watched their mothers set fire to their toys and clothes, as Karr recounted in The Liars' Club, but lots of folks endure failing marriages. More than a few descend into alcoholism. And a percentage eventually recover. In Lit, Karr recalls her experience of these relatively ordinary events with a poet's economy, an adult's rueful wisdom, and a native Texan's salty humor.

Karr has set herself a thornier task than in her first memoir, which centered around two years in the early 1960s, or in her second, Cherry, which covered her adolescence. Lit ranges across several decades—and many acres of emotional terrain. It opens in 1972, when 17-year-old Mary arrived in California "weighing in the high double digits and unhindered by a high school diploma." It closes with her mother's death in 1999, and a moving coda in which the author remembers her departed parents and describes the tentative equilibrium she has attained: "Good days, I see myself in others, and I know—in my bone marrow—nothing we truly love is ever lost…[but] there are days when through fear and egoism I shake my fist at the sky, afterward feeling silly and worn out as a toddler post-temper tantrum."

That phrasing is emblematic of Karr's precision as a writer. She depicts the seductive enticements and mortal perils of getting drunk, the rocky process of getting sober, the peace achieved by getting religion. She is slightly vague only about her troubled marriage. That probably stems in part from a desire to spare her son the gory details, but a deeper reason derives from one of Lit's finest qualities: the ability to step back and admit another perspective. "Were Warren [not her ex-husband's real name] laboring over this story," she writes, "I'd no doubt appear drunkenly shrieking; spending every cent I could get my mitts on; alternately crowding his scholar's home with revelers, then starting to vanish nights into a kind of recovery cult—none of this entirely untrue."

Memoir is an inherently self-centered genre, but Karr welcomes other people into her narrative with an empathy that extends even to the spooky Vietnam vet she met while hitchhiking on a California highway (he gave her a ride so harrowing she fled to safety in a Midwestern college). Among those tenderly profiled in the chapters about her decade between leaving home and getting married: the gentle psychology professor who took under his wing a blue-collar kid from Texas; the African-American poet (and junkie) who urged her to write from the heart, not the head; and the group of women with mental retardation she taught after she dropped out of college, whose wholehearted response to verse "fully converted me to the Church of Poetry."

That was Karr's religion in those days. "I clung to the myth that poetry could somehow magically still my scrambled innards," she writes, "the myth that if I could shuffle the right words into the right order, I could get my story straight, write myself into an existence that included the company of sacred misfit poets whose pages had kept me company as a kid." When she married "Warren," a fellow poet with a starry Harvard pedigree and an icy, wealthy family, she hoped they could create a new life and heal the wounds inflicted by their disparate but equally un-nurturing parents.

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