A woman left her abusive husband in the middle of the night and, taking their 3-year-old son with her, drove through the dark from Ohio to Boston, reaching across the boy to hold the broken handle on the passenger door to make sure he didn't fall out. The scene stuck with me, like many others I heard in workshops I began leading in writing autobiography a decade or so ago. It seemed to me that these true stories, personal slices of American life, conveyed the feel and taste and sense of this society more faithfully and compellingly than the novels I used to count on for such understanding. Current novels continue to seem to me less revealing of "the way we live now" than the best of the memoirs that appear with increasing regularity on bookshelves and even bestseller lists.
The breakthrough contemporary memoir was Mary Karr's The Liars' Club in 1995, accelerating what was already a popular trend and upping the literary stakes of the genre by the poetic precision of its language and the headlong thrust of its narrative. Now she is back with a sequel to her childhood, the adolescent era whose major symbolic (as well as physical/mental/emotional/psychic) event was losing one's virginity. In typical Karr-like celebration of the vernacular, the title, of course, is Cherry.
If her second effort is not as uniquely satisfying as the first, it is not because Karr has lost any of her considerable powers as a prose stylist or suffered from the ancient curse that allegedly plagues any follow-up with mediocrity. The problem–or at least the difference–is simply that The Liars' Club was based not only on the author's experience but on the soap-operatic adventures of her boozing, man-loving, peregrinating mother. Mary's mom not only blessed her with life but also with as colorful a ready-made character as any author-daughter could wish for to star in her first memoir. Like Mary as a child and her sister, Lecia, the reader of The Liars' Club is carried along by their mother's dramatic ups and downs and outs, providing in the process plenty of plot. Agnes Nixon, creator of the longtime favorite soap opera All My Children (as well as nearly the entire ABC lineup of daytime drama) once defined the basic rule of plot as "the heroine must always be in peril," and Mary's mother followed that rule.
Focusing this time on adolescence, Karr is true to the inherent ennui of the teenage years, which means that Cherry is long on mood and short on plot (for one thing, Mom stays put in this era). Karr explains that "no long episodes from that dull time exist…. There are only brief snippets of memory, outtakes, captured instants where your sagging performance becomes plain." Her teenage best friend shares with teenage Mary "a monastic passion for doing virtually nothing." Reflecting on that era of her life the author reports that "a camera trailing you would find neither plot nor action–two girls laze around on sofas at various stages of torpor reading or talking about what they will read or have read or plan to write or make or do in some vaporous future."
True as this is to adolescent life, and as artfully as it is described, torpor is hardly riveting. Nor does the small-town East Texas setting of Leechfield provide much to write from home about, "with its mind-crushing atmosphere of sameness…. Sometimes you even fancied you could hear the traffic light over deserted main street blink. Time lagged mule-like in muddy tracks."
As if to compensate for the lack of action or drama in her story, Karr jazzes things up with a barrage of the sexual slang of time and place. She tells us of boys "talking about how they finger-fucked you and your ying-yang made their hand smell like tuna fish," a "dick hard as a crescent wrench," a girl whose "knockers" are like "headlights," another who "yanks both her pants and undersancies down," and wonders how Wonder Woman "keeps her D-cup boobs from flopping out of the red strapless bra top she's got on," while "your mother holds loudly forth on any and all pussy-related subjects," and you call your sister "Old moose-boobs." Sexual lore is passed on and learned ("After a date, throw your panties against the wall, and if they stick, you had a good time") as well as proposed initiation rites for a teen sex club ("Blindfold Davie Ray Hawks and tell him he's putting his finger up somebody's butt, but really it's just wet bread wadded up in a soup can"). As Karr puts it, "I had a lot of double-dog fuck-you in me by then."
As well as employing a blitz of teen sex slang, Karr sometimes slips into a kind of collegiate cuteness as she looks back at her adolescent self: "The stoicism I favored was less in the mode of Marcus Aurelius and more reminiscent of the donkey Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh."
But just as she seems to be bogging down in the mire of teenage torpor, dutifully slogging on to close out this era of her experience, Karr taps into a real narrative that gathers speed and carries us breathless to the end. It happens when
one legendary night you travel to Effie's Go-Go, a black juke joint in the bowels of Beaumont behind the shipyards where no underage girl of any color should be granted admission. You drive there flaming so luminously on orange sunshine that dark trees on the roadside seem to rear back to let you pass, and your bare arms and hands glow in the car's hull like fine marble.
Karr returns from what seems a near-death acid trip with the hallucinated illusion that she has found the meaning of life, reduced to one sentence, only to realize it's the kind of commonplace Grandma might have stitched on a pillow. After sharing her revelation with her best friend, adolescent Mary comes down from her illusory nirvana, and Karr the writer looks back to see that what's unalterable as bronze, though, is the image of your radiant friend that morning barefoot on the porch with sun in her rampant hair. She's holding out that bowl of Froot Loops and touching your shoulder as if to bestow the right name upon you, the one you'll bear before you through the world, each letter forged into a gleaming shield.
Stephen King, author of thirty "worldwide bestsellers," was "stunned" by The Liars' Club, and his admiration for the "beauty" and "ferocity" of Karr's memoir seems to have inspired him to try his own, yet he feels he lacks the "totality" of her memory. His own "herky-jerky childhood" seems to him more like "a fogged out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees…the kind that look like they might like to grab and eat you." His father "did a runout" after piling up a lot of bills when Stephen was 2, and he was raised by his mother, moving around to different relatives and different jobs in different places, trying to keep it all together.
King stresses that his own On Writing is "not an autobiography" but "a kind of curriculum vitae–my attempt to show how one writer was formed." It is also an attempt to help aspiring writers with advice, counsel, exercises in writing and even an offer of personal criticism:
When you finish your exercise, drop me a line at www.stephenking.com and tell me how it worked for you. I can't promise to vet every reply, but I can promise to read at least some of your adventures with great interest.
King is not only a popular but also a populist writer who believes that "large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that these talents can be strengthened and sharpened." And he seems to have written this book primarily for the purpose of helping them. Maybe this generosity of spirit comes from memories of his own down-and-almost-out days, when he pieced together a living teaching high school English and writing stories for magazines like Cavalier at night and on weekends, barely able to pay for his daughter's needed medicine.
Prickly from nonappreciation by the literary high priests, King complains that "critics and scholars have always been suspicious of popular success" and cites Dickens, "the Shakespeare of the novel," as a victim of "constant critical attack" because of his "sensational subject matter," his prolific output and, "of course, his success with the book-reading groundlings of his time."
It is to the groundlings that King speaks here, not in the memoir-writing manner he admires in Karr, who shapes and re-creates experience into novelistic scenes and dialogue, but rather in chatty, informal talk. Perhaps the best of that talk–and the most useful–is on one of the subjects King feels most strongly about, his own recovery from drugs and booze, and the mythology of those substances as useful muses.
King had fallen so far into addiction that "in the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding." The intervention that saved him was organized by his wife, Tabitha, who emerges as King's favorite character in this book as in his life. Mrs. King and his children gave him the ultimatum of rehab or leave, and he chose life.
"The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time," King writes.
Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers–common garden variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I've heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.
If his prose lacks the beauty he admired in Karr's memoir of her childhood (a gift, I suspect, that can't be taught), King dispenses good common sense on life as well as writing.
The calling that led to Frank Rich's career as chief drama critic of the New York Times not only helped him survive a turbulent childhood but provides the theme and narrative line of his memoir: "I was now destined to trace my childhood almost exclusively through an accelerating progression of plays, good and bad, that would captivate and kidnap me in circumstances both mundane and dramatic, in different cities, in the company of a multitude of audiences."
More than the story of Rich's childhood and adolescence, Ghost Light could well be described as the memoir of a calling. It began even before he was born, when his mother felt "transformed" by the songs of South Pacific, the premier musical of its era (and perhaps of the entire American theater). She listened to the record "over and over, she liked to recall, when it was time to go to the hospital and have her first baby." One of the child's earliest memories was of his mother singing songs from the musical and playing the record, explaining that it was from a Broadway "show" in New York and therefore "magical" to her; and so, it turns out, to her son.
Successive records of musical shows his parents brought home heightened the child's fascination, and though Broadway was far from his suburban DC home, young Frank was taken to a road company performance of Damn Yankees at Washington's venerable National Theatre. He went home to play the record and relive the show, wanting to learn "how each piece of the whole big Tinkertoy worked."
The "ghost light" of the title refers to the old theatrical superstition that if the stage is left dark a ghost will move in, so a single bulb is kept burning at center stage after everyone goes home. The term also has an eerie relevance to this memoir, for the author as a child suffered from night fears and insomnia, and a truly fearful menace entered his life when his mother remarried. Rich's mercurial stepfather, Joel, at first bears a harrowing resemblance to the nightmarish stepfather of another compelling memoir of the first rank, Tobias Wolfe's This Boy's Life.
The wheeling and dealing, larger-than-life lawyer Joel was alternately generous and abusive with his own children as well as his new wife and son. Though he never physically attacked Frank's sister, he lashed out at the boy in brutal scenes like this one in front of a crowd of onlookers at a family summer camp:
Joel slapped me to the ground with his huge hand. My brain felt as if it was knocking against my head. Then he grabbed me by the ankles and started dragging me up the road on my back, the dirt and gravel scraping against my skin. We were at the next building–some fifty yards away–before he dropped me in a heap in the center of the road.
Yet unlike Tobias Wolfe's stepfather, the volatile Joel was supportive and encouraging of Rich's talent and ambition, taking him to the theater, sending him to New York with tickets for Broadway plays, cheering his achievements and acceptance to Harvard. Rich is somehow able to give a balanced portrait of this brilliant and deeply troubled man who ended in a nursing home with terminal dementia.
Through the tension and fears of his stepfather's outbursts and his mother's tears, the theater served as solace, haven and home. When he got his first job as an usher at the National Theatre in high school and walked past the line of ticket buyers, he felt as if "some powerful, nameless spirit were rising within me, raising my whole being to a more elevated place, the sort of heaven people talked about in religious school but that I had never glimpsed before." He knew from then on that no matter what bad scenes erupted at home, "whatever else happened, I'd be remembered at the National Theatre and be at home there, if nowhere else."
Rich is able to convey the excitement for the theater he felt as a child, watching spellbound as
The lights shining on the curtain dimmed, too, plunging the theater into complete darkness. Then, just when the suspense became overwhelming, the whole audience holding its breath, the curtain did rise, ascending heavenward so fast (where did it go?) and revealing such an explosive cacophony of light and costumes and people singing and dancing that it was more than I could absorb. The whole whirligig of sights and sounds and bodies rushing forward seemed to be aimed directly at me.
The words of his compelling memoir seem aimed directly at us. Perhaps it's that quality of direct experience, without the artifice of fiction, that makes the memoir so popular now and has earned it a respected place in our literature.