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.