The following is a short "position paper" from my Biography and Life Writing class (about which I may say more, later). It's about Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, an excellent and disturbing true-story of a childhood in 1960's East Texas. I will warn that the paper may not make much sense if you haven't read the book, but perhaps it will serve as a motivation to that end.
At the top of the page: Texas, 1961; Colorado, 1963; Texas Again, 1980, as if those places and dates were sufficient to mark the events of The Liar's Club. The gruesome humor of a Leechfield afternoon, the irony of a Colorado mountain town standing in for New York... How else could these be described? Perhaps every book is, ultimately, the product of the culture – or the confluence of cultures – by which its author has been shaped, but it is at least somewhat surprising that the horrid Leechfield from which Mary Karr issues could be midwife to any literary impetus. It seems the stuff of stories, not the maker of them. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that there is no Leechfield, Texas on the map.
Recalling her grandmother's (celebrated, at the time) death, Karr writes, “Something in me had died when Grandma had, and while I didn't miss her one iota, I keenly felt the loss of my own trust in the world's order” (106). The death of a close relative is common enough for a girl of seven to confront, and this quotation is obviously the reflection of an older woman who understands the innate, chaotic frustration of such a death. But this seven year old witnesses, too, her mother's insanity – both as she nearly drives off a bridge during a hurricane, and as she “set fire to the whole world” (245) and threatens her daughters with a butcher knife – and is the victim of an unreported and, to her seven-year-old self, inexpressible, rape. Nevertheless, Grandma's death occupies so much retrospective narrative, whether as a way of explaining the bonfire to follow or on its own merit as another in a string of insupportable experiences.
Karr follows the above passage with this: “Leechfield itself would make you think that way – the landscape, I mean. You needed to watch out for the natural world down there, to defend yourself against it” (106). Of all the descriptions we have of Leechfield – as one of the certifiably ugliest places on Earth, as “one of the blackest squares on the world cancer map” (293), as the home, almost by necessity, of the Liar's Club – it is this Darwinian, animal reality that is most at the core of Karr's childhood. Almost all of what lives in Leechfield is poisonous, as if only the poisonous could survive. Losing trust in the world's order, as Karr puts it, is almost inevitable in a place so naturally disordered. When a gun is an essential part of life solely for protection from the litany of dangerous wildlife running about, it's a wonder there's not more Nervous going around. Add in muggy swamp heat and the odd hurricane, and one sees how out-of-place Karr's Yankee mother – who wants to identify herself above all as a New Yorker – was in such a home.
What is the role of culture in forming a personality, or – perhaps synonymously – a neurosis? For Karr, the East Texas twang, “fixing to” get things done, or lying as a matter of course becomes embedded into her self. The humor of awful she carries around like a stoic, and where anger does float to the surface of her narrative, it feels almost incidental to the mere fact of telling a story. That, it seems, is the essence of the Leechfield culture she is undeniably a member of. Though on the fringes of what is tenable for the nuclear family (even in Leechfield, the Karrs are Not Right), the conditions for insanity are an inescapable part of the Leechfield society, from the climate to the rubber-necking neighbors.
That Karr changes the name of her home is unsurprising, given her father-trained penchant for storytelling. Her words on the vignette she developed to describe her Grandma's death apply equally here, as throughout the book: “It's a clear case of language standing in for reality” (48). Leechfield, the very name, truly does “stand in” for the squalid reality of whatever her hometown actually was called. In some sense, Leechfield stands above whatever that real name is, being too perfect a descriptor to pass up. The stuff of stories.
What backwards fairy-tales, then, issue from Leechfield? If people are the product of their cultures, what culture acquired a young Mary Karr? A liar's culture, we might say, or a survivor's culture (certainly a quality her sister Lecia adopts). Or, perhaps encompassing both of those, a blue-collar, union-man culture. A culture of Nervous and Not Right, we might also say, or a culture of alcohol. Finally, we might very well call it a literary culture, not because it is the cradle of any Nabokovian eloquence – he would be more out-of-place than Mother by a long shot – but because it has an eloquence all its own, bordering on Homeric in emotion. Sing, Goddess, of the ate of Mother.
Yet this is no epic poem, no glorification of Fate and War and Death. There are capital letters here, still, to be sure, but they dot more mundane words. There is a rhythm to the language, too, but it is not the dramatic meter of poetry. One is tempted to call it more human, but that's an empty phrase, because the epic poem is also human. Rather, Karr's Liar's Club is unequivocally modern, and Texan. The catharsis here is not the archetypal vision of the fall of a social better, but rather it is the personal reflection turned into a liberation. One can only imagine writing in such vivid detail of Charlotte's Web turned to a pedophile's blow job.
It is the lies and the humor and the horror of Leechfield (a place the family can't help but carry with them to Colorado) that make it so story-worthy, so able to turn from whatever its dull Texas name really is into something more superlative. And why not? The ugly, swampy reality of such a place might not seem worthy of note, but that such cultures exist reaffirms the need for fiction in all its guises.