February 15th, 2011 / 2:46 pm

House of Prayer No. 2

The narrator of Mark Richard’s new memoir House of Prayer No. 2 sees his past self in a fairly distant third person which has access to the interior life of the past self but which more often treats him as though we are looking at him as a clinical specimen:

“He won’t learn, he doesn’t learn, he can’t learn, the teachers tell the mother. He talks back to the teachers, tries to correct their speech. He was rude to kind Mr. Clary when he came to show the class some magic tricks. You better get him tested. He might be retarded. And he runs funny.”

The book begins with a set of conditional imperatives, which ask the reader to assume the position of the parents of “the child:”

“Say you have a ‘special child,’ which in the South means one between Down’s and dyslexic. Birth him with his father away on Army maneuvers along East Texas bayous. Give him his only visitor in the military hospital his father’s father, a sometime railroad man, sometimes hired gun for Huey Long with a Louisiana Special Police badge. Take the infant to Manhattan, Kansas, in the winter, where the only visitor is a Chinese peeping tom, little yellow face in the windows during the cold nights. Further frighten the mother, age twenty, with the child’s convulsions . . .”

The author becomes, in these ways and others, a somewhat dispassionate observer of his own life, which allows him to write in a manner that is in equal measures brutal and tender in its clearsighted attentions, and also without self-justification. Perhaps this seems like a sure path to reader-weariness at book-length, but instead the reader settles into a posture not unlike the one a viewer might assume in a darkened movie theater, taking in the progression of images, falling into them first with interest, then with personal investment, then with pleasure and the pain that accompanies the personal investment the narrative has made possible in the reader/viewer. I’ve not read a memoir quite like it before, although I have read a few books that have provoked a similar feeling in the reader, all of them by Mark Richard. If you take my recommendation and track down a copy of House of Prayer No. 2 — you should, you’ll be glad, swear to god — you should next find copies of Charity, Fishboy, The Ice at the Bottom of the World. I wish Mark Richard would write and publish more books than he does.


  1. kb

      Ice was pretty much the first literary fiction that I ever read that was not assigned reading. This was probably around 1999 and I was 16 or 17. Strays and Where Lightning Takes Tall Walks made short stories a relevant thing in my life. Later, I read the other two books, of course.

      I cannot remember how I ended up with it in my hands, weird.

  2. Matthew Simmons

      Got it on the pile. Pushing it up to the top now.

      Mark Richard is the best.

  3. MFBomb

      How the fuck does this post only have two replies? Mark Richard is not appreciated enough. What’s wrong with you people? Dumbass Tao Lin has no style whatsoever and y’all love his ass, and Richard–who kicks ritalin-sniffing hipsters like Lin squarely in the nuts–gets TWO replies?

      How about this opening opening, from, “Fun at The Beach”:

      “Got a letter from a girl said we ought to get together before her husband gets parole. Said maybe we could rent another bungalow down at Big Bill’s Beach Cabanas like last time, maybe steam up some shrimp and suck out the heads, maybe break a box of old 45s against the walls again, the tequila-drinking things, things like me doing it to her from behind with her leaning out the bungalow window whistling at sailors on the boardwalk, what did I think?

      I wrote back and said, Do I know you?”

  4. MFBomb

      Again, what’s wrong with you people?

  5. Trey

      to be fair, a lot of the replies to tao lin stuff are either from non-regular commenters that flock to tao lin stuff around the internet or from people who hate him and say things like “how can you keep promoting this shit.” or “circle jerk” or something.

  6. MFBomb

      I know. I’m just trying to draw traffic to this post.

  7. gene

      welcome to the internet MFBomb. it is what it is. traffic only slows for accidents. but, anyway, richard is a champ. and he was just on kcrw with michael silverblatt. i really hope we get some new fiction from him sometime soon. still, this memoir is something special. i was lucky enough to get two AR copies and almost lost my shit when i found out a few months back that richard had even been working on anything other than tv scripts. i still have avoided the novel, but the two story collections are among my favorites. power and light, in the words of one of richard’s influences.

  8. MFBomb