Alvin's Reviews > The Liars' Club

The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
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Aug 24, 2008

really liked it
Recommended for: East Texans
Read in October, 2006

Sometimes, the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. Mary Karr’s memoir The Liar’s Club is a prime example of this intellectual real estate. In the introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition, Karr admits that her motivation for writing this book is simply that she felt no need to “bother to make stuff up”. The book is a supposedly true account of her childhood growing up poor in Leechfield, TX, a small oil town in the Beaumont area. Told as she remembers it, with occasional reference to details filled in by her sister, Lecia, the memoir is an open and honest tale that portrays life in Southeast Texas as those who really lived there are likely to remember it.

Reading The Liar’s Club, I couldn’t help but think of my own childhood. Though separated by nearly two decades and two counties, I felt at home while in Karr’s world. The world of refinery workers and piney woods mingled just the way I remember, and many of the details of life were the same. Accompanying this book were my own recollections of the Christmas of 1983 that my own mother went psycho, grabbing our best looking Christmas tree ever by the trunk, ripping it from its corner in the living room, streaming garland and icicles, yanking plugs, shoved it through the front door and hurled the entire thing from the front porch onto the icily muddy ground in the front yard, and declared Christmas Over.

The strength of The Liar’s Club is in this genuine feeling of true life that it portrays. We all have such memories. They are what shapes us and makes us who we are. Yet, we must never forget that we never stop growing and developing so that we are all strangers to our past. Karr conveys this feeling throughout the book, viewing her own past through the lens of her adult life. Referring to a trip to the Houston Zoo, she recalls how the captive pacing of a panther reflected in her mother’s glasses reminds her now of her mother’s trapped feelings, and wishes that should could go back and shake her mother by the shoulders, or at least offer her a glass of water, a feeling she didn’t feel as a child.

The primary conflict appears to be her mother’s instability. Unsure what to expect from a mother that tries to drive the family off the Orange Bridge, goes after her children with a butcher knife, and drinks herself to oblivion, Mary and Lecia do the best they can do as children – learn to weather the storms and find what joy they can in little things.

As a counter to her mother’s instability, however, her father comes across as a stalwart rock of stability. His portrayal paints what should be the archetypical portrait of a 20th century Texas man. Fiercely loyal to his family, Pete Karr is nonetheless defined by the lawless ethics of boomtown Texas. He never misses a day of work and always provides the financial support his family needs. He hides the horrors of his past and the war from his children, providing a kind of stability and stoicism that Karr recalls fondly. Yet get on his bad side, and he is a mountain lion unleashed. Somehow, even in his unbridled rage, Pete is honorable as portrayed here, in a Texas sort of way. When his wife and her new husband Hector visit to pick up some of her possessions after they had been separated for some time, he let his temper get the better of him. Fighting seemed to be a pastime of his, yet even when beating Hector to a pulp, he took the time to allow Hector to stand up and “practically dusted off Hector’s shirt and adjusted his collar before clocking him the second time”. Yet, after such a savage act, his daughters and even his wife respected him more. In a primal, savage way, he had earned back his honor, and in doing so, his beloved family.

Also notable is the way the brief time the girls spent in Colorado contrasts to the rest of their life in Texas. In Texas, the world Karr knew consisted of roughnecks, unions, oil refineries, and the occasional reference to a more East Texas logging lifestyle common farther from the coastal area of Leechfield. There were no cattle, no cowboys and no horses. Life consisted of such things as chemicals, visits to the dirty beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, and “every species of poisonous snake, spider and rabid biting creature available in that latitude”. The time Mary spent in Colorado, on the other hand, fits in more with the stereotype people expect when they think of Texas. Mary learned to ride horses there, and her mother learned a bit about the bow-legged men who lived with the horses and cattle. The world of hairy, dirty men working union jobs to support their families seemed a world away while in Colorado.

Although a memoir rather than fiction, The Liar’s Club is, as promised in the introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition, filled with enough “jackpots” of real life and color to keep you turning the pages, seeking the next development in the plot. I feel that either Karr’s memory of her childhood is much sharper than mine, or that some events have been dramatized to flesh them out, but her story rings as true to me, or at least true enough. The details convey a feeling of frankness and honesty, and the story is engaging and riveting enough to overlook any possibility that it may or may not have been garnished with extra details.

For those of us who grew up with words such as “fixin’ to” in our vocabulary, such as “I’m fixin’ to whoop y’all kids”, Karr’s memoir is a cathartic blast to our pasts, even if our own mothers never went quite so far as to go after us with butcher knives. For anyone who had a bit more urban or pastoral upbringing, The Liar’s Club is a glimpse into the way life in 20th Century Southeast Texas truly was.
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