Nan A. Talese: New York, NY, 2011. 224 pages. $23.95.
There is no negotiation in Mark Richard’s new memoir. Written in the second person singular, House of Prayer No. 2 forces its readers to inhabit a life that is not theirs. There is, at times, a natural resistance to such an approach. The memoir is filled with the outlandish and supernatural; there are ghosts, prophetic signs, and near-miracles that we are asked to accept as a whole. Richard tries his hand at countless jobs (among them are disc jockey, fisherman, private investigator, and bartender), spends many nights in run-down bars, and ends up in dangerous situations that should result in jail time. Like Harry Crews’ A Childhood, the memoir sports a colorful troupe of castoffs and “God’s mistakes” (a term Richard uses to describe the babies at the hospital for crippled children where he is interned in his youth). When a trucker at an Outer Banks bar tells the story of playing chicken over a narrow bridge with another semi, Richard thinks, “Here I am, I have found a home among some of God’s other special children.”
This is the sort of anecdote we might expect from “a writer’s journey,” especially a writer known for his bizarre short stories about the South. And while the standard maxims about writing requiring doggedness, a bit of talent, and a touch of luck are present in Richard’s memoir, it is after he finds success as an author that his memoir finds its calling.
House of Prayer No. 2 examines in touching detail Richard’s spiritual awakening, but nothing about the role of religion in the memoir is simple and straightforward. When Richard remembers his time in the crippled children’s hospital, the “young seminarians” that visit are described as being “all smiles until they smell you.” In contrast, the men from the barber college “pull the pint flasks of cologne and cooling colored water they clap on their hands and rub around your necks and on your faces and through your hair like a blessed baptism.”
It is rare today for a discussion of faith to fall between the extremes of examining religion as a low-key, easy-to-swallow deism and an evangelical, need-to-convert furor. Richard is a believer, but like all true believers, his faith is in constant flux. Three times he receives the calling to become a minister and three times he does not make it through seminary. At some point an Anglican bishop tells him, “If you have the Call and you’re a good writer, you need to keep writing, you’ll reach many more people that way than if you go through seminary.”
Reading House of Prayer No. 2 requires a certain faith in itself. Writing in the second person, Richard asks you to place your faith in him to convince you that his life could be your own. The wild wanderings of his youth don’t, in retrospect, seem so much the result of questionable decisions as of a sort of destiny. Richard writes, “Satan demands to sift us like sand through his fingers, and God, knowing everything, allows it.”
Those sands that pass through—touched by temptation and released—become the building materials for Richard’s adult life. He marries and has kids, and he supports them by writing for Hollywood. He rather prophetically finds himself in “Billy Faulkner’s” old office. This “settling” coincides with the increasing importance of Christianity in Richard’s life. Family and faith become higher callings than the perfectly crafted short story.
The final project Richard describes in the memoir is not a new screenplay or novel or short story for Esquire. He uses the profits from his screenplay Stop-Loss to help fund a new chapel for House of Prayer Holiness Church in Franklin, Virginia. The memoir ends with the pastor’s mother giving a testimony. Richard writes, “She says she had a dream of a time when the church would need to be rebuilt, and in her dream, a white man comes into their church and helps make it happen, and she says when she saw you walk into the House of Prayer fifteen years ago, she said, Praise the Lord, it’s him, and with that, Mother Ricks lays her hand on your shoulder, and you, at last, are slain in the Spirit.” Richard’s complicated use of the second person is manifest to the end, when he asks us to experience his salvation as our own and to achieve, at last, a sense of belonging.