Mary Karr had to go through hell so you could read a very cool book. That's one way to look at this opus, an exploration of the author's East Texas girlhood and the collapsing family situation she found herself confronted with.
The book starts with a mystery: Why are police being called to the scene of a young girl's bed? Why is a kindly doctor inspecting her body for "marks?" The books builds a mystery, then takes more than 150 pages bothering to solve it, but by that time you are hooked too deep into the rest of the story to care. You want to find out how the most screwed up family ever to reside in the Lone Star State managed to survive themselves, albeit barely.
While the author is a recognized poet and esteemed college professor, and "The Liars' Club" is widely praised among literary critics, those fearing some pointy-headed exercise in literati snobbery at the expense of slack-jawed Western yokels need not fear. Not that Karr doesn't get in some digs at the rustic Bible-thumpers responsible for so much of her upbringing, but her style of writing is much more akin to Stephen King than Margaret Mead, writing in a real-world way about actual experiences she underwent in a way that will make you feel you underwent them to, whatever your age, sex, or social background. She describes everything from hurricanes to rapes to a child's first gulp of sparkling alcohol with a "you-are-there" veracity that is almost frightening, and hard to pull away from. Only James Ellroy's "My Dark Places" and Mikal Gilmore's "Shot Through The Heart" hold a candle to this in my experience, and I've read a few.
The cruelest thing one has to report about this book is, however savage the author's experience, it never stops being so goddam funny. With an eye for detail like Dickens crossed with a sense of humor as constant as Twain's, Karr makes "The Liar's Club" the kind of book one can't just put down at the end of a chapter, however sleepy or battered by second-hand reality the reader might feel.
On telling about her grandmother's slow death from cancer, Karr is nothing if not succinct. "First they took off her toenail, then her toe, then her foot. Then they shot mustard gas through her leg till it was burnt black, then she screamed for six weeks nonstop. Then they took off her leg, and it was like a black stump laid on the pillow..."
So much for pathos, as she continues: "At the end of this report, [Karr's sister] Lecia and I would start scanning around whoever's kitchen it was for cookies or Kool-Aid. We knew with certain instinct that reporting on a dead grandma deserved some payoff."
She explains later that she wasn't so sorry to lose Grannie. The woman used a quirt on her hide and distended her mother's psyche to the point of breakdown. Though it's hard to say exactly. Karr doesn't give away much, but she offers this counterbalance to her tale of Grandma's ordeal: "Real suffering has a face and a smell. It lasts in its most intense form no matter what you drape over it. And it knows your name."
Anyone who's lost someone to cancer knows intimately what that means, and that's the heartbreak and the greatness of "The Liars' Club," a book that seems so amazingly knowing as it recounts Karr's firsthand experiences as a young girl. Her experiences are raw and miserable, to put it mildly, but she presents it in such a way to make it utterly compelling to the reader, yet endurable, too.
The book works on so many levels. I was left wondering about sister Lucia, a rock-steady character who often protects her younger sister, but whom Karr nevertheless savages throughout her narrative. Is she writing here as an adult, or channeling her younger self and some form of sibling rivalry? I also wondered about the title organization, a group of men with whom her father hangs out and tells tall tales. Whenever she describes a meeting, she slips from the past into the present tense for one of the few moments in the book. Is that a signal that the Liars' Club interludes are themselves tall tales by author Karr? Or is she telescoping her experience in those close quarters to give it the special verisimilitude that makes her relationship with her father so central to the story?
In one of these interludes, Karr ponders the nature of lying and how they reveal deeper secrets of the liar, that is to say, "how lies can tell you the truth." Certainly there's no earthly way of explaining her mother, an earthy Bohemian who takes to painting and drinking with equal fervor, feuding with her husband and taking advantage of a sudden inheritance Gloria Swanson-style. Any divorced father will find himself welling up with tears as he reads Karr's account of how he was separated and then reunited with his daughters.
There's nothing easy in this book, but so much to love. Everything good you've heard about this book is true. Now just go read it.
on December 13, 1998
"The Liars Club" is one of the most touching and simultaneously disturbing books I've read in quite awhile. In an unforgettable series of memoirs, Mary Karr has succeeded in retelling the astonishing events of her past in an earnest, heartfelt manner. Through her thorough recount, she is able to deliver a compassionate, and at times alarming, description of what it's like to love and be loved, to lie and be lied to. Mary Karr's voice shines as she describes her childhood from the witty, honest view of a young girl. Virtually all of her enthralling recollections are immersed in a unique humor that makes this book hilarious in a backwards way: "Your mother's threat of homicide--however unlikely she tries to make it sound--will flat dampen down your spirits." By using the fiery, blunt style Mary Karr has chosen as her own, she is able to throw the reader into her memories with great intensity: "Mother is reaching over for the steering wheel, locking onto it with her knuckles tight. The car jumps to the side and skips up onto the sidewalk. She's trying to take us over the edge." It's these two driving forces, humor and sharp honesty, that keep the reader from putting this book down. "The Liars' Club" is a poignant story of an ordinary child living in an extraordinary world. Mary Karr's witty commentary and intimate analysis of such a remarkable life make this book a very worthwhile read. Her compelling story should be considered as reading material for anyone striving to understand the value of his or her childhood.
on December 16, 1999
A friend gave me this book, saying she had liked it but wasn't crazy about confessional memoirs.
The Liar's Club may fit that description, but don't be put off, because it's absolutely fantastic. Mary Karr's writing routinely verges on prose-poetry and is, despite its dark subject matter, funny enough to make you laugh out loud. Then, once you're laughing, she turns around and hits you with something so brutal that you're caught up short.
I did find myself wondering, as I'm sure others have, whether some embroidery may have been involved in the author's crystal-clear recollections of events long past. She appears to have kept copious journals, but still, you wonder how anyone could have gotten so much detail down with such precision, especially as a child.
Then again, maybe she's a hyper-sensitive person with a photographic memory. Ultimately I didn't care if parts of it were embellished a bit. She's such a good writer that if this depiction of events captures the truth of her childhood, more power to her. My main reaction was a weirdly worshipful desire to locate Ms. Karr and make her tell me more stories, the ones that didn't make it into this book. (Actually, I'd be surprised if this has not happened to her.)
This book pulls you in. It's funny, poignant, shocking, memorable. I give it five richly deserved stars.
on November 15, 2000
Mary Karr grew up in an ugly place, the refinery/swamp town of Port Arthur, Texas, and in an ugly situation, with a mentally unstable mother and a hot tempered, hard drinking father. Yet out of such ugliness, she extracted great beauty in order to write this dazzling memoir. Despite Karr's dysfunctional childhood, her writing is completely devoid of woe-is-me whining or psychobabble.
Karr has a gift for spinning a tale, perhaps inherited from her father or honed at gatherings of his friends in "The Liar's Club," a group that met to drink, play cards, and swap stories. And boy, the stories she tells! There's the stories about her mother's manic/pyschotic episodes, including one time when she set her children's belongings on fire, another time when she attempted to drive the family off a bridge, and a third time when she threatened her lazy husband with a gun. Karr also tells about her inconsistent relationship with her father, who suffered a difficult life but emerged, if not unscathed, then unbroken.
Most remarkable about the book, though, are not the amazing stories but the matter of fact, even at times hilarious tone in which they are told. The woman telling these stories is no victim; she is a survivor. A miserable childhood did not cause Mary Karr to surrender her spirit, but rather forged her in fire and made her stronger.
on August 5, 2001
The majority of this memoir recounts a period in the author's childhood where she was around 5 years old, or thereabouts. As I was reading this book, I kept going around and around about how much of this is downright fabricated and in fact the work of a very skillful writer? Yet all the loose ends tie up at the end. Hmm, don't know what to think.
It's not a pretty story and not for the faint of heart. I can be a pretty tough old bird, and some of her descriptions were downright shocking. This book was recommended to me by an author, and I was told it had one funny one-liner after the next, flat out great writing--read it immediately! I didn't want to tell this person, that I didn't laugh but once (the humor is dark) and I thought, Geez, this writer should be put in the corner with Salinger and Henry Miller (w/o all the four-letter obscenities) as far as salty prose goes. If that is your cup of tea, then give this book a try. After all is said and done, it is a page-turner, it keeps your interest, and even has a sort of moving twist at the end. It's a well-written book; the style will not be for everyone.
on March 21, 1999
I grew up with Mary, I was even in the same third grade class. While I knew her mother to be "eccentric", I never realized what a traumatic childhood she had! I also had a traumatic childhood due to alcoholism. Mary has the ability to write about her experiences with humor. I really enjoyed this book and was very happy for Mary that it became a best seller. Glad that people from all over could identify with the story. The book brought back a lot of memories of places I had forgotten about. I'm looking forward to her new book "Cherry".
on April 25, 2014
While Karr can turn excellent phrases, she seems here to have seen the need to stretch out the incidents of her childhood unnecessarily, and choke them up with too many words (when simplicity would have had far greater impact). Karr comes across as the type of writer who refused to let her writing be edited; this book could have been a great achievement if a good editor had gone through it and weeded out the fluff. As it is the narrative is frequently like struggling to mow a lawn that hasn't been tended to in years--very tough going.
on November 18, 1998
"I never knew despair could lie." (p. 320). Truth comes in waves in Mary Karr's The Liar's Club. Like the clouds of locusts, the hurricanes, the barren western Texas landscape and its enormously vast skyline, truth is ladeled out in blasts of wind, the crank of oil rigs, the smell of DDT, and generous scoops of Easy Perm. The title of this book is not only ironic, but visionary because the force of resistance to the truth is palpable in the lives of the people who forge their own survival in reaction to it. Truth touches them everywhere, but they don't want to feel it or to see it. It reaches out to them and they avoid it. It comes to them in the dark and gropes for them, stumbling over trash cans and littered yards. Only the oddball memories of a child are able to fuse together a tunnel of meaning at the end of which we can gather the hazy, purplish light of truth. The reigning conceit is that despair never lies. If that is true, then this book is a testimony to science. Despair litters the pages of Karr's work. It empties itself into every nook and cranny of her childhood. Her mother's case of Nervous is euphemistic and foreshadows her impending psychotic episode with fire and lipstick. Self-loathing seems to be a theme for this family, so that her mother's truth is, finally, an attempt to "scrub herself out" in every mirror of the house (p. 149). Her father's truth is no less ironic. The stories he telles are stories that make misery and cruelty sound funny. It is his way of not allowing himself to feel victimized by his circumstances or the course of his life. His truth is not to let life make you feel like a victim and he teaches that skill to his daughter so that she, too, will have the tools to survive the blasts of other people's craziness. He wasn't naive about life, but he tried to be prepared. He was reliable and even though "no technical truth" was ever told in his stories at the Liar's Club, "he knew how to be believed." (p. 14,15). The truth of knowing how to be believed is--when it comes to dealing with despair--more accurate than the facts themselves. Despair and misery are the theme of this book. They are what constitute its "truth," if that is what you are looking for. More than truth in any abstract or even statistical sense, this book tells the story of surviving human suffering and weakness. It's a guidebook for people who think they have lost their way in life and to their surprise, realize that every detour, every account of misery and pain, leads somewhere. The fact that despair does indeed lie is the truth at the core of Karr's piece. Knowing when to trust hope and when not to; knowing when to trust or believe the despair you feel and experience, and when not to is the great "truth" of this book. She shatters our ideology that misery is more honest than hope. Her truth is that believing in despair may unnecessarily create lunatics. by Randi Quanbeck
on August 3, 2003
Funny, sharp, pitiless, volatile - and more. There aren't enough words to describe the content of Mary Karr's memoir of her upbringing in a seething, sweaty, swampy East Texas refinery town. But not many words are needed, especially when it comes to Karr's lyrical and poetic writing style: perfect. At the core of her tale is her family, often funny, occasionally violent, but always defiantly loving. Karr's mother is artistic, borderline psychotic, and determinedly free-spirited. Her father is a drunk, a liar, amazingly tolerant of his wife's nuttiness, and in spite of his many faults, devoted to holding his family together. The Liar's Club is a story of survival.
on December 16, 2000
It's not often that I read a book and hang on every word. This was one of those rare occassions. This book has been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years, when I purchased it based on a friend's recommendation. Admittedly, I was skeptical, as I am of just about any memoir that makes the bestseller list. I was afraid that it would be another one of those self-serving "victim of a bad childhood that has scarred me forever, but look how resilient I am" memoirs. And while it is true that Mary Karr had a frighteningly bad childhood, and while it is true that she was the victim of many awful situations, she never puts herself in that role. At times, it's absolutely terrifying to read, and I cringed at parts of it, but I was amazed throughout--amazed at the fact that she had lived through everything that happened and amazed at how clearly and precisely she was able to write about it. Karr has a way with description that puts the reader right in the middle of the story. The book is so well-written that I did not want to put it down, but I forced myself to put it down just so I could come back to it.