If your family is normal, or even quasi-normal, then The Liar’s Club will showcase a whole new cultural experience for you. Mary Karr’s memoir describes her 1960s childhood with her sister Lecia in hilarious, horrific detail. For our reading entertainment, the profoundly dysfunctional Karr family takes the proverbial stage in "Leechfield," Texas (a pseudonym for the Port Arthur area). Leechfield is a lower-middle class town where the land and the air, and a lot of the people, smell like oil.
Per Mary’s telling, her mother (whom she simply calls Mother) is a tortured artist, full of inner grandeur, and stifled by the bounds of poverty. She’s philosophical, passionate, and brilliant in her own ways, but she’s immobilized by mental illness and alcoholism. Her artistic flamboyance is so out of place in Leechfield, no one knows what to make of her, and the community writes her off as lunatic. But their assessment doesn’t seem unfair. Mother’s wildly destructive behaviors are the primary thrill factor of the book. Only the glowering, disapproving grandmother can subdue her, to the astonishment and disappointment of young Mary.
Mary’s father (Daddy) is the saner parent. He’s an alcoholic too, but since he’s unplagued by mental illness, he isn't ostracized. He holds a job in the oil refinery, feeds his family, and dotes on his little girls. Daddy is famous in Leechfield for his masterful telling of tall tales among friends (inspiring the title The Liars’ Club).
Although Mother and Daddy do love Mary and Lecia, Mother’s illness overshadows every aspect of their lives with insanity. Mary and Lecia have few boundaries. While Lecia assumes the responsibility that her mother shirks, Mary grows sassy and wild.
|Motiva Oil Refinery, Port Arthur, Texas|
(photo from aramcoservices.com)
When Mother comes into some money, they all move from oil-permeated Leechfield to an idyllic ranch in Colorado, where the girls roam the wild countryside on horseback in mountain-fresh air under wide open skies. But as it has been said, no matter where you go, there you are. Addiction and illness follow them. Mother and Daddy divorce soon thereafter, and the children are abandoned to themselves and tossed around with fantastical carelessness.
To conclude the memoir, Mary skips to her young adulthood. Mother’s new money has been squandered, Mother and Daddy have reconciled, they’ve returned to Leechfield, Daddy is bedridden, and a great family secret is disclosed. Suddenly, the insanity makes sense. But don’t read ahead. You need the blindness to appreciate Mary’s bewildering, focusless upbringing.
Throughout the book, Mary hints that she and Lecia have grown into contributing, productive humans, but as she describes her childhood, you may wonder how that outcome is possible. Maybe this is what saves the girls: Despite all the chaos, a thread of love is evident. The girls are not rejected by either parent, nor by each other. They learn attachment.
Karr’s narrative is a mashup of childish perspective and grown-up introspection. Her lexicon is deliberate and selective. She crafts each sentence like a poet (which she also is). In her writing, you’ll see glimpses of the good genes she’s inherited. She’s an artist, like her mother, and a taleweaver, like her father. Enjoy The Liar’s Club like wine: Some of it is unsavory. Some of it is exquisite. All of it will alter your outlook.