The Liars' Club
by Mary Karr


Penguin Books, 1995. ISBN 0140179836.
Reviewed by Jazz Jaeschke
Posted on 04/23/2002

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Relationships

The Liars' Club sweeps the reader into the world and thoughts of a young Mary Karr, nicknamed Pokey. Those fortunate enough to grow up more sheltered may be appalled at Pokey's encounters in her dysfunctional family. Others will recognize bits of their past and applaud Karr's courage in telling it like it was. I was incredibly moved by the voice of Pokey as she recalled her parents, her older sister, and the town she grew up in.

The book was named for her dad's group of drinking buddies, who gathered to play dominoes and swap tales. Pokey tells us, "the men had no official meeting time and place. ... They all just seemed to meander together, seemingly by instinct, to a given place and hour that had magically planted itself in the collective noggins. No women ever came along. I was the only child allowed, a fact frequently held up as proof that I was hopelessly spoiled." The child retells her dad's stories and mingles her views of this masculine atmosphere. In spite of the dubious surroundings, Pokey's extensive time with the Liars' Club offered advantages. She learned to defend herself and take risks. She observed and understood that people do not necessarily intend everything they say to be taken as gospel truth. She emerged a talented storyteller herself.

Pokey's mother is central to the mystery threading through this memoir. She is characterized as Nervous "... in East Texas parlance the term Nervous applied with equal accuracy to anything from chronic nail-biting to full-blown psychosis." Her mother's background unfolds slowly, with ultimate glimpses into the bizarre incidents opening the book. While Pokey's accounts of her mother imply neglect to adult readers, the child's voice portrays strong affection. Her life was enriched by her mother's differences, including artistic exposure, early intellectual development, and awareness that women have personal history aside from being extensions of husbands and family.

Since my older sister and I remember our shared childhood experiences in different sequences and sometimes with different outcomes, I appreciate Karr's interspersed comments that her sister would describe a given experience differently. By the end of the book, I was wishing the sister would also write a memoir. Many readers will identify with this snapshot of small-town life in "Leechfield" (a fictional name chosen for its connotations), although some will want to believe the author dramatized for effect.

Mary Karr has commented that her prose is influenced heavily by being a poet since childhood. Every word counts. Indeed, every word, line, and paragraph in this book contributes to what follows, often taking intriguing twists and turns within a chapter. While reading, one senses the poet delivering feelings and impressions with a punch aimed right at your emotions. Skimming is not an option; there are no superfluous passages. Karr squeezes an amazing amount into 320 pages of relentless pace.

I am greatly awed by Mary Karr, for her risks endured as a child and for those ventured as an author. She claims her past with pride rather than apology. After ups and downs between humor and horror, this book leaves a lingering taste of affection.


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