Nonfiction Classics for Students

The Liars' Club

The Liars' Club

Mary Karr 1995

Introduction
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Themes
Style
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Criticism
Sources
Further Reading

Introduction

Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, published in 1995 in New York is a memoir of Karr's turbulent childhood in the fictional eastern Texas town of Leechfield, and later in Colorado. Karr's immediate family consists of her sister Lecia, two years older than she; her father, Pete Karr, who works at an oil refinery; and her mother, who is emotionally unstable and hates living in Leechfield.

The memoir describes the sort of childhood that many people would wish to avoid. Mary's parents fight constantly and eventually divorce only to remarry later. Her mother's alcoholism and addiction to diet pills lead to many strange episodes, some of them frightening, as when she becomes unhinged and appears to be about to kill her children.

Mary's father is a rough-and-ready, quarrelsome native Texan with Native-American blood who excels as a teller of tall tales in his group of buddies who meet at the American Legion. This group is christened the Liars' Club.

Although the pages of The Liars' Club are chock full of arguments, fights, and unsavory incidents of all kinds, the memoir was hugely successful. This success is due to Karr's skills as a poet, her finely honed sense of humor, and her wonderful ear for the slang of eastern Texas. Readers probably also sense that underneath the surface turbulence, this dysfunctional family still loves each other.

Author Biography

Mary Karr was born in January 1955 in Texas, the daughter of J. P. Karr, an oil refinery worker, and Charlie Marie Karr, an artist and business owner. She had a difficult childhood which she describes in The Liars' Club and she left home when she was seventeen. Karr enrolled at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, but left after two years in order to travel. In 1978, she was admitted to Goddard College in Vermont where she met writers Tobias Wolff and Frank Conroy, both of whom encouraged her to write.

Karr found her calling as a poet. She has remarked that she wanted to be a poet from about age seven. Her first volume of poetry, Abacus, was published in 1987; her second volume, The Devil's Tour, appeared in 1993.

After The Devil's Tour, Karr wrote The Liars' Club: A Memoir, which brought her fame along with critical and commercial success. Published in 1995, The Liars' Club spent sixty weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. In 1996, the book won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and the Texas Institute of Letters' Carr P. Collins Prize. It also won the New York Public Library Award.

Karr's third volume of poetry, Viper Rum: With the afterword "Against Decoration," was published in 1998. This was followed in 2000 by The Liars' Club sequel, Cherry: A Memoir, in which Karr recalls her turbulent adolescence. Cherry was generally less well received than The Liars' Club.

Karr has been an assistant professor of English at various institutions, including Tufts University, Emerson College, Harvard University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently the Peck Professor of English at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. She is a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize in poetry and essay. In 1983, Karr married a fellow poet, whom she divorced in 1993. She has one son, Devereux Milburn.

Plot Summary

Part 1: Texas, 1961

The Liars' Club begins at a traumatic moment in Mary Karr's life, when she is seven. There has been a disturbance at her home in the town of Leechfield, Texas, as a result of which Mother is being taken from the house, having suffered a nervous breakdown. Mary and her nine-year-old sister Lecia are taken away by the sheriff and stay for a while elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Karr relates how her parents met and married and also tells of her father's childhood, explaining that she learned about these things by listening to the stories Daddy told to his drinking friends at the American Legion. This group of friends was known as the Liars' Club.

Mary's childhood is not easy. Her parents fight frequently, and although her mother threatens divorce, the couple stays together. Mary develops a sharp tongue, frequently using vulgar language she learned from her parents. She gets into fights at school.

Life for Mary becomes even more difficult when her grandmother, who has cancer, comes to live with her family. Grandma Moore is a bossy, critical, eccentric woman who carries a hacksaw around in a black doctor's bag and demands that Mary be spanked for misbehavior. Mary blames Grandma Moore for the worst times in her family, and Mary's own behavior deteriorates. She throws tantrums, bites her nails, walks in her sleep, and is suspended from second grade for attacking other children. To add to her misery, she is raped by an older boy in the neighborhood.

Grandma Moore dies a slow death. Her leg is amputated and the cancer spreads to her brain, making her, in Karr's words, crazy. She takes no pain medication but drinks beer all day. Since she dislikes Mary's father, he makes himself scarce while she is there, working double shifts and entertaining himself with hunting and fishing.

Grandma shows Mary a photo of a boy and girl, Tex and Belinda. She says they are Mary's half-brother and sister, but she does not explain what she means. She threatens that if Mary misbehaves, she will be sent away, like Tex and Belinda were. When Grandma Moore dies, shortly after the family returns home after fleeing a hurricane, Mary is relieved, although her sister Lecia is genuinely upset.

Another crisis erupts on a trip to the beach. Lecia is attacked by a man-of-war that leeches onto her leg, leaving bright red welts. Having wished many times for her sister to die, Mary now prays that she lives.

With Mother depressed and spending her time reading in bed, Mary is relieved when Daddy takes her to the Liars' Club once more, where she hears him spin a tall tale about how his father hung himself (his father is in fact still alive). Mother starts drinking to excess and this leads to even more vicious fights between her and her husband. On Mary's birthday, after a bitter quarrel, they all go out for the evening. But on their return, Mary's disturbed mother tries to grab the steering wheel and take the car over the edge of a bridge. Pete responds by knocking her unconscious. When she recovers she scratches his cheek bloody.

The situation gets worse. One night, Mother becomes unhinged, scrawling over all the mirrors with lipstick, smashing light bulbs, and burning the children's toys, furniture, and clothes. Then she advances on the children with a butcher's knife. She does not harm them and puts the knife down, but she calls the doctor and says she has just stabbed both children to death. This is the traumatic incident referred to at the beginning of the book. As a result, Mother is taken to a hospital for the mentally ill. Mary goes further out of control, shooting a BB gun at a boy who had been in a fight with her sister. The pellet hits the boy in the neck.

Part 2: Colorado, 1963

Having inherited money from Grandma Moore, the family is living in more comfortable circumstances. They move to Colorado Springs, where Mother buys a stone lodge on the side of a mountain. Mary is now eight years old. From the bedroom window, she and Lecia enjoy watching bears roaming around, and they learn to ride a horse. They spend an idyllic day fishing for trout with Daddy. Mother spends much of her time at the local bar. Soon Mary's parents announce they are to divorce, and they give the girls a choice as to with whom they wish to live. The girls choose Mother. Daddy returns to Texas the next day. A Mexican man named Hector moves in with Mother, and Mother calls him the girls' new daddy. The girls resist Hector's attempts to bond with them, and they miss their real father whom they unsuccessfully try to lure back.

They visit Antelope, the biggest city Mary has seen, but it is a disappointment to her. Mother rents a colonial house there, and the sisters each have their own bedroom for the first time. They attend a local school, where Mary still gets into fights. Mother's mental health continues to deteriorate. She becomes dependent on diet pills and spends most of her time drunk in bed. Her relationship with Hector sours, and she becomes moody and depressed, seeing no point in life. On one occasion she throws herself out of a moving car. In another traumatic incident, Mary is forced to perform oral sex on the man who is supposed to be baby-sitting her. She tells no one of how she was violated.

Life becomes so intolerable that Mother comes close to shooting Hector. Lecia and Mary, although they do not like Hector, try to protect him. That night, Lecia calls their father collect and tells him she and Mary are coming home. Daddy pays their airfare and is overjoyed to see them when they return. He prays their mother will soon join them. Mother returns soon after with Hector, intending only to pick up some clothes. However, Daddy beats up Hector, and Mother decides to stay and live with her family again.

Part 3: Texas Again, 1980

In 1980 Daddy has a stroke at the age of seventy and is incapacitated. Mother has stopped drinking but has become addicted to prescription drugs. She remains depressed. Mary, having left home permanently at seventeen, lives in Boston. She and her father have grown apart and no longer have much to say to each other. After Daddy's stroke, he loses the ability to speak coherently. Mary returns and helps her mother care for him.

One day, while searching the attic for old medical records, Mary comes upon a number of wedding rings. She asks her mother about them and Mother's anguished story comes out. Her first husband ran off with her two children, Belinda and Tex, and she saw them only once again. Each time she remarried, she expected her new husband to help her get her kids back, but the men quickly lost enthusiasm for the task. It was the strain of losing her children that led to Mother's mental instability over the years.

Key Figures

Ben Bederman

Ben Bederman is one of the members of the Liars' Club. He always listens carefully to Pete Karr's stories and is usually the first to ask a question. He visits Pete in the hospital after Pete has a stroke and is distressed at Pete's condition. Almost every night he sits for hours outside Pete's hospital room.

Cooter

Cooter is one of the members of the Liars' Club. He often picks on Shug and scolds him because he is bothered by the fact that Shug is black.

Daddy

See Pete Karr

Hector

Hector is a Mexican bartender who marries Mary's mother while they are living in Colorado. Mary and Lecia do not like him and refuse to accept him as their stepfather. Hector does not have a job and the couple lives off Charlie Marie's money. However, the marriage is not a success. …