Monday, January 16, 2012

House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard

House of Prayer No. 2 is as gothic and Southern as a memoir can get. I predict it'll sweep through book clubs like tornadoes twist through the south when it comes out in paper next month. Unlike the usual first person voice of most memoirs – Mark Richard tells his tale primarily in the second person imperative thus delivering his life in a series of jabs that punctuate the landscape like cherry bombs that kids might have tossed on dead-end gravel roads in the towns he called home. Richard’s voice makes this memoir gritty and real while underneath it’s tender and spiritual.  Comparisons to Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ are inevitable but Mark Richard’s tale is peerless in its originality. His opening chapters read like a Biblical creation story because he’s showing his readers how the place where he began delivered him to where he is today. 

When a book opens with: “Say you have a “special child.’ Which in the South means one between Down’s and dyslexic,” you know you’re encountering a unique voice.  Then add sentences like: “Give the child a sandbox to play in, in which scorpions build nests.  Let the mother cut the grass and run over rattlesnakes, shredding them all over the yard. Make the mother cry and miss her mother. Isolate her from the neighbors because she is poor and Catholic.”  You will not only know Mark Richard, you will feel him deep in your bones. More from that first chapter:

Move the family to a tobacco county in Southside Virginia. It is the early sixties, and black families still get around on mule and wagon. Corn grows up to the backs of houses even in town. Crosses burn in yards of black families and Catholics. Crew cut the special child’s hair in the barbershop where all the talk is of niggers and nigger-lovers. Give the child the responsibility of another playmate, the neighbor two houses down, Dr. Jim. When Dr. Jim was the child’s age, Lee left his army at Appomattox. When Dr. Jim falls down between the corn rows he is always hoeing, the child must run for help. Sometimes the child just squats beside Dr. Jim sprawled in the corn and listens to Dr. Jim talking to the sun. Sometimes in the orange and grey dust when the world is empty, the child lies in the cold backyard grass and watches the thousand starlings swarm Dr. Jim’s chimneys, and the child feels like he is dying in an empty world.

Southern euphemisms sometimes label a child and keep him in his place but calling Mark Richard a “special child” doesn’t stop him.  Clearly everyone in town considers him “special” both because of his deformed hips and because his oddness makes them think he's mentally challenged.  Then Richard endures long periods of confinement at the Crippled Children’s Hospital in Richmond, VA, a place that he renders Dickensian. Yet as difficult as the hospital is, it might be better than home where his alcoholic father provides little support.

Richard’s early adult years find him dwelling in shacks, borrowed apartments and on a shrimp boat while hiding from himself.  His occupations vary from house painter to private investigator until a short story a teacher submits on his behalf is published in the Atlantic and he begins his writing career and falls in love.

Just as Richard’s life seems to settle down with an offer to teach, he feels the call to ministry.  This later leads him back to an unlikely spot for a man who now seems to have it all: The House of Prayer No. 2 Church where he and his mother are usually the only white worshipers.  There he finds a place where his call turns into action.  Along the way, Richard’s intimate view of his life is packed with staccato word pictures that will make any reader thankful that Mark Richard survived to tell his tale.

Summing it Up: Read this memoir to experience nothing like you’ve ever read before.  Grab a blanket and a comfortable chair; you may not put this one down until you’ve devoured it in one fell swoop.

Rating: 5 stars    Category: Nonfiction, Gourmet, Grits, Soul Food, Book Club

Publication date: February 15, 2011 (Paperback: February 14, 2012)

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  1. Thank you for the fantastic article. The place else could anyone get that kind of info in such a perfect means of writing? I am at the search for such information.

    1. Thank you. Are you looking for similar memoirs or other review sites? Mary Karr's "Liar's Club" and "Lit" are memoirs. Also look on the pages on the right side for my annual book lists for the last several years to find many other exceptional books.

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