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Cheers to Mary Karr and 'Lit'

LIT, by Mary Karr. Harper, 386 pp., $25.99.

Writing students to whom I've assigned "The Liars Club," Mary Karr's bestselling 1993 memoir of her insanely dysfunctional East Texas childhood, occasionally complain that it's too long. I don't disagree. But which wild, heartbreaking story would you leave behind? Which precision-crafted paragraph? Have you ever read language at once so exquisite and so raunchy?

Now there's "Lit," the third installment in the Karr saga, following "Cherry," the story of her adolescence. "Lit" shares all the important characters and many of the virtues of "The Liars Club," as well as its signal flaw - at nearly 400 pages, it's sprawly. This book could be the basis for a 12-hour documentary called "Behind the Scenes at the Making of 'The Liars Club.' " ("Lit" is the smarter title: lit as in literature, lit as in loaded and lit as in glowing with holy ardor. Nice.)

The book traces the author's path from confused college girl to drunk, unhappily married poet to sober, super-spiritual Queen of American Memoir. Along the way there are guest appearances by Louise Glück, Tobias Wolff, the late David Foster Wallace (once the author's boyfriend), John Irving, Czeslaw Milosz (identified by nationality and eyebrows, not name) and others.

It opens with a letter to the author's son, Dev. Bad idea - this sappy letter doesn't quite sound like the Karr we know. Fortunately, a second prologue hits the mark, depicting a half-crocked young mother sitting on her fire escape with a bottle and a pack of cigs, dreading that her 4-year-old will wake up or her husband will come home.

Then we whoosh back in time to where "Cherry" left off: 17-year-old Karr gives up her slacker life in California and heads off to college in the Midwest. This involves a road trip with her mother where they get smashed every night and read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" out loud. When she gets to school, she's annoyed by her privileged, down-jacketed classmates but discovers antidotes in binge drinking, therapy and the poetry scene. She goes to grad school, marries a poet from a rich WASP family (Michael Milburn, called Warren here), resents them, drinks. Her beloved Daddy begins dying. Her mom gets sober. She has a blackout car wreck, then discovers AA and prayer. And guess what happens?

"I know people needier and way more deserving have prayed far harder for stuff they needed more: to feed starving children, say, to get a negative biopsy result. Nonetheless, it's a stone fact that - within a week or so of my starting to pray - a man I don't know calls me from the Whiting Foundation to give me a $35,000 prize I hadn't applied for."

You'll have to swallow a lot more stuff like this to get through the next 200 pages, during which the author becomes a Catholic, writes her memoir and takes over the world. But I predict you will. As much as "Lit" tried my patience at times, it gave even this confirmed atheist a kick in the spiritual butt.

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