ATILE WORKER SPRUCING UP THE East Texas house where Mary Karr grew up was surprised to pry a bullet out of the kitchen wall. Karr, her sister Lecia and her mother, Charlie Marie, on the other hand, weren't surprised at all. "My sister said to my mother, 'Isn't that the time you shot at Daddy?' " remembers Karr, 41. "And my mother, without missing a beat, said, 'No, I believe that's where I shot at Larry. Over there's where I shot at your Daddy.' "
Bullet holes and other lingering scars are the subject of The Liar's Club, Karr's vivid evocation of her anguished Texas upbringing. A surprise bestseller—it was recently No. 2 on The New York Times paperback bestseller list—The Liar's Club has drawn high praise for Karr's clear-eyed portraits of her battling parents: father Pete, an oil worker and barroom brawler, and Charlie Marie, a flamboyant alcoholic who suffered a nervous breakdown when Karr was 7. "People talk about the brilliance of the vernacular in my work—that's just how my daddy talked," says Karr. "And my mother was a bona fide outlaw, a seventh-generation Texan. She's so smart, so in-your-face, so deeply who she is, people tend to like her."
For years, though, Karr didn't understand her. An artistic, educated eccentric, Charlie Marie was married seven times (twice to Karr's father) and scuffled for years with mysterious demons before she was institutionalized for about a month when Karr was a child. "It was a big deal to have her gone and not know why," says Karr. "She talked to me about that later. She always told me, 'None of this was your fault.' But it was still a mystery to me." It was only 16 years ago, when Karr discovered a grim secret in her mother's past—recounted in the book—that she came to grips with her mother's erratic behavior.
Yet Karr insists that her shocking childhood—she was raped by a neighborhood teenager and molested by a babysitter—had, simultaneously, a bright side. "It's not like I grew up in Bosnia," she says. "My teeth came in straight. I do have a sense of being lucky." She was kicked out of high school several times, left home often and walked out for good at 17, joining some surfers bound for California.
All the while, Karr knew she had a calling. "If you had asked me what I wanted to be at 7, I'd have said a poet," she declared. "I loved that you could make a work of art out of the language." After two years at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., Karr dropped out to travel, then talked her way into Vermont's Goddard College in 1978. There she met writers Tobias Wolff (This Boy's Life) and Frank Conroy (Body and Soul). "They made me read everything," she says of her mentors. "I worked my butt off."
In 1983, while she was in psychotherapy, Karr married a fellow poet; they had a son, Dev, now 10, and divorced in 1993. "It's not like he was Charles Manson," is all Karr will say of her ex. "It just didn't work out."
Karr had better luck as a writer, publishing two volumes of poetry, The Devil's Tour and Abacus, before dredging up memories of her beyond-dysfunctional family. "I thought because I'd been in therapy that I was just going to write it down," she says. "But it was more painful than I expected." Nearly broke at the time, she forged ahead. "Every time I'd run up my Visa bill and my long distance would get turned off, I'd send in three chapters," says Karr, whose New York City agent Amanda Urban arranged to have payments made in installments. "I had a flamethrower up my butt."
When Karr finished the book, she gave it to her mother, now 75, and sister Lecia, 44, who runs an insurance company in Houston (Karr's father died after a long illness in 1985). "I was waiting to hear, 'You weren't even born when that happened,' says Karr, "but they didn't correct a thing." Charlie Marie, who still lives in Jefferson County (where Karr grew up), survived quadruple-bypass surgery in '95 and has been sober for 15 years.
The success of The Liar's Club has enabled Karr to pay off her 1990 Toyota Corolla, paint her house in Syracuse, N.Y. (her porches are purple), and take Dev to Walt Disney World. So far she has shielded her son from her stormy history. "All he knows," she says, "is that when I was little, my parents drank a lot and I was bummed out."
Karr, who teaches two courses at Syracuse University and who just signed a deal to write Cherry, a memoir of her teenage years, is in no rush to remarry. "All I want to do is read, write and raise my kid," she says, evincing a sense of family as fierce as a Texas summer—something she credits to her mother and father, despite their weaknesses. "I really felt that these people loved me," she says. "And I think that love is redemptive."
MARIA EFTIMIADES in Syracuse
- Maria Eftimiades.