This blog has been / is still-kind-of, on a six-month (nay, year-long) hiatus while I adjust to the demands of having a real actual full-time job for the first time in about 100 years.
But I just finished The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr’s memoir about her terrible Texas childhood, and wanted to make note of it. In 320 pages, the author (who is between seven and ten-years-old for most of the story) is molested twice; watches her grandmother develop cancer, endure treatments of nerve gas, have her leg amputated and then die a slow, grim death; watches her mother go mad; has her mother come at her with a knife after burning nearly all the family’s worldly possessions in a fit of manic delusion; endures her parent’s divorce and reunification; watches her beloved father suffer a stroke; and gets beat up and smacked around an awful lot.
It’s bleak, and also triumphant (Karr is funny and gifted, and has a knack for rendering the most wretched events with a brutal sort of humor). Here she is taking revenge on a neighborhood kid who bested her and her sister in a playground brawl:
The next day right after dawn, I pulled down my BB gun from the top bookshelf and went on a rampage that prefigured what Charles Whitman – the guy who shot and killed thirteen people from the tower at the University of Texas – would do a few years later. I stuck a can of hot tamales with a can opener in a paper bag and fixed myself a jelly jar of tea. While all the other kids were still sitting around in their pajamas eating their doughnuts with powdered sugar and watching cartoons, I was sneaking across the blackberry field behind our house. There was a lone chinaberry tree at the field’s center and I shinnied up it, then pulled by BB gun after me to wait for the Carter kids. They’d planned to berry pick that morning so their mama could make a cobbler. I’d overheard talk about it.
So of course she shoots the kid:
Even I could see the little bloody hole in Rickey’s neck where I’d pegged him. Mr. Carter yelled my name, then yelled was that me. But like Brer Rabbit, I just laid low. Then he yelled did I have some kind of weapon up in that tree, and Babby Carter dropped her pot and ran crying back to the road with Philip right behind her. Shirley took out running too. Her flip flops slapped against her bare feet till she jumped the ditch and hit asphalt on the other side. Rickey put his hands on his hips like he was pissed off, but he stepped sideways so that his daddy stood between him and my chinaberry tree. You pussy, I thought, as if Rickey’s not wanting to get shot were a defining mark against his manhood. Mr Carter screamed to get down from there, that I could put somebody’s eye out with a pellet gun. And I came back with a reply that the aging mothers in that town still click their tongues about. It was easily the worst thing anybody in Leechfield ever heard a kid say. “Eat me raw mister,” I said. I had no idea what this meant. The phrase had stuck in my head as some mild variant on “Kiss my ass,” which had been diluted from overuse.
That’s from a funnier scene. But she brings the same voice and tone to bear on many far grimmer anecdotes.
I won’t transcribe the whole book here. I’ll just skip down to its final passage, which is by far its most beautiful, and which feels like a reward for wading through so much wretchedness:
Mother was crying softly beside me. She slipped on her sunglasses. The white oil tanks sliding off the lenses still seemed primordial to me. As a kid I’d thought they were dinosaur eggs and worried about what might hatch out of them. They cast humped shadows across the refinery yards. We drove past them. The fence running alongside us went form the industrial hurricane’s diamonds to barbed wire that sloped in parallel lines from post to post, behind which were broad rice fields, rich green stalks leaning every which way, almost heavy enough to harvest.
Then the fence vanished, and the dissected fields gave way to a foggy riverbank spilling morning glories. Dark was closing in. We hit a long stretch of roadside bluebonnets that broadened to a meadow. Here and there in the flowers you could make out small gatherings of fireflies. How odd, I thought, that those bugs lived through the refinery poisons. Beyond Mother’s tired profile, the fireflies blinked in batches under spreading mist like little birthday cakes lighting up and getting blown out.
Though we should have glowed, for what Mother told absolved us both, in a way. All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stories we’d cobbled together out of fear. We expected no good news interspersed with the bad. Only the dark aspect of any story sank in. I never knew despair could lie. So at the time, I only felt the car hurtling like some cold steel capsule I’d launched into onrushing dark.
It’s only looking back that I believe the clear light of truth should have filled us, like the legendary grace that carries a broken body past all manner of monsters. I’m thinking of the cool tunnel of white light the spirit might fly into at death, or so some have reported after coming back from various car wrecks and heart failures and drownings, courtesy of defib paddles and electricity, or after some kneeling samaritan’s breath was blown into stalled lungs so they could gasp again. Maybe such reports are just death’s neurological fireworks, the brain’s last light show. If so that’s a lie I can live with.
Still, the image pleases me enough: to slip from the body’s tight container and into some luminous womb, gliding there without effort till the distant shapes grow brighter and more familiar, till all your beloveds hover before you, their lit arms held out in welcome.
If you’re interested in memoir at all, read this FIRST, and then read Karr’s invaluable, Art of Memoir SECOND (I read them the other way around, and wish I hadn’t, because the latter unpacks a lot of the methodology behind the former).
That is all.