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James T. KeaneDecember 12, 2023
Mary Karr (Wikimedia Commons)

“Any way I tell this story is a lie,” wrote Mary Karr in the prologue to her 2009 memoir Lit, “so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.” It is an amazing line on its own, but I found it particularly arresting when I first read the book in paperback in 2011. At the time, I was prepping a syllabus for a college course on spiritual memoir, a genre fraught with questions of authority and authenticity (where have you gone, James Frey? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you), and I loved how Karr immediately complicated the suspension of disbelief for every reader.

"She knows how crazy this all sounds. It used to sound pretty crazy to her as well. That is part of Karr’s charm as a narrator."

Lit was Karr’s third entry into the genre after The Liar’s Club (1995) and Cherry (2000) and tells the story (among many others) of her recovery from alcoholism and her entrance into the Catholic Church. In Anna Keating’s review of Lit for America, she compared Karr to St. Augustine—but also noted that the book was not marketed as a spiritual autobiography. “Unlike most conversion narratives written by or about people who go on to live extraordinarily holy or influential lives—St. Augustine, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day—Karr’s book reminds us of the remarkable and quiet heroism of ordinary life,” Keating wrote. “Getting up every morning, staying sober, working, saying thank you, kneeling in prayer and trying not to scream obscenities at the people we love the most, the people who have failed us and whom we have failed.”

Born in Texas in 1955, Karr was a poet long before she was a memoirist. Her poetry collections include Abacus (1986), The Devil’s Tour (1993), Viper Rum (1998), Sinners Welcome (2006) and Tropic of Squalor (2018). The Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University, she has been honored with numerous awards, including the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous Pushcart Prizes for her poetry.

Part of Karr’s quotidian charm as a memoirist, Keating noted in her review of Lit, comes from her habit of not taking herself too seriously. “Like Augustine’s before her, Karr’s prose often sounds more like poetry. Also like Augustine, Karr is intelligent, well connected and a bit self-conscious to find herself in this ragtag religion,” Keating wrote. “She knows what you’re thinking. She knows how crazy this all sounds. It used to sound pretty crazy to her as well. That is part of Karr’s charm as a narrator. She takes herself lightly, even when dealing with the heaviest of matters.”

Karr also once admitted to Terry Gross of National Public Radio that she was wary of herself as a memoirist in general, calling her three books a “low rent form” of the genre—a topic Karr also addressed in The Art of Memoir. “It was the province of weirdos and saints and film stars with fake boobs—or you could be a prime minister or something,” she said, not that of a writer with a fairly developed case of imposter syndrome.

“In conveying the search for God in the things of this world, Karr walks a careful line—neither devolving into pious pap nor alienating nonreligious readers."

Karr’s self-deprecation and sense of humor come across in a 2019 interview with America editor at large James Martin, S.J., as part of his “Faith in Focus” show (video here) for America. As a professor, she noted, she often found herself complaining about her students filling up her office hours, especially when “there are very important things that I am thinking I have to do, you know—like get my mascara on and get my nails done.” In doing a daily Ignatian examen, however, she found herself recognizing that whenever a student came in, “even when it was awkward—I noticed God was always there with me.” She ended up doubling her office hours instead.

Karr also has the ability to puncture some of the pieties that go along with frequently used spiritual phrases or tropes of Ignatian spirituality. “I don’t much care to see God in all things,” she once wrote. What? Sacré bleu! Somewhere St. Ignatius just fainted. In a 2011 interview with Karr for America, Timothy O’Brien, S.J., asked her what she meant by it. “I want to find God where I want to find him,” she said. “You know, when it’s convenient, when I’m ready—like maybe Christmas Eve or Easter, where we’ve got it kind of taped off.”

“In conveying the search for God in the things of this world, Karr walks a careful line—neither devolving into pious pap nor alienating nonreligious readers,” O’Brien observed. Though Karr is “acutely aware of a ‘certain type of church lady who doesn’t like me,’ she speaks convincingly of God to believers and nonbelievers alike.” She embodies another principle of Ignatian spirituality: She meets people—students, readers, drunks, seekers and more—where they are. O’Brien writes:

Standing astride the polarities of sacredness and secularity, she addresses both the pre- and the unconverted at the same time and in the same voice. Her task, as she sees it, is to write truthfully about the unavoidably religious world she inhabits, without alienating those who ‘don’t want to hear about Jesus.’

One of Karr’s poems from Sinners Welcome, “Descending Theology: The Resurrection,” was reprinted in America in 2011. Karr also appeared on a special live episode of the America podcast “Jesuitical” in 2018, which readers can view here.

“I don’t much care to see God in all things,” Mary Karr once wrote. What? Sacré bleu! Somewhere St. Ignatius just fainted.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is Karr’s “Descending Theology: The Resurrection.” Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: This fall, we are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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