three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
Mark Richard
user_rating: 
0

A Writer's Journey Home

A-House of Prayer No. 2Mark Richard has published two acclaimed short story collections, The Ice at the Bottom of the World (1989) and Charity (1998), and a best-selling novel, Fishboy (1993). A former writer-in-residence at the University of Arizona and the University of California at Irvine, his work has appeared in Esquire, GQ, Harper's, the New Yorker, and the New York Times.

The Topic: In this unusual memoir, Richard recounts dual journeys from a troubled childhood in the 1960s rural South to an award-winning literary career and to Christianity. Born to an alcoholic father and a devout mother, Richard spends much of his youth in charity hospitals, where he undergoes excruciating surgeries for congenital hip deformities. Though his storytelling abilities blossom during the long recovery periods spent in body casts, a rebellious streak eventually leads him down a dissolute path of heavy drinking, drugs, and menial jobs. When a teacher sends one of his short stories to the Atlantic, he unexpectedly wins a nationwide contest, paving the way for a new profession and a "call to ministry" in a backwoods Pentecostal church in need of a new home.
Nan A. Talese. 224 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 9780385513029

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Read Richard's amazing memoir House of Prayer No. 2--read it as soon as you can, you'll barrel through it--and you'll know after just two pages of his effortlessly killer prose that he's special all right." Lisa Schwarzbaum

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Richard's prose is gorgeous--and hits with a force that sometimes stuns. ... Richard rambles--a few pages chronicle either a day or a decade--but his propulsive prose makes House of Prayer No. 2 a surprising page turner." Justin Moyer

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Written in second person, it is less a memoir than an impressionistic self-portrait in which memory and myth conflate in places, and the borders between reality and imagination, between the natural and supernatural, grow thin." David L. Ulin

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What's most striking in his account is the total absence of an ‘I.' One could argue that the power of memoir stems from the act of bearing witness--from both the intimacy and the authority of the first-person voice--and that a memoir's appeal lies largely in the tone of that voice. Yet Richard deliberately chooses detachment over intimacy or winsomeness." Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"This book contains episodes as hauntingly beautiful as stories from The Ice at the Bottom of the World. Yet these passages feel like set pieces that don't belong to the rest of the memoir, which tells the twinned stories of Richard's development as a writer and a man of God. ... Neither one becomes central and unflinchingly candid, bypassing the author's self-protective urge." Debra Monroe

Critical Summary

Although the critics cited some wonderfully poignant moments and gorgeous prose, their praise was eclipsed by the debate over Richard's choice to tell his story in the second person. "It creates a sense of life lived without volition," protested the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "‘You get fired from your bartending job.' ‘You wreck your car.'" The complete lack of "I" also impedes commentary and interpretation, so the events Richard relates must stand alone. Some critics considered this unusual approach a unique way of heightening the reader's sense of isolation and urgency, while others objected to its inaccessibility. For better or worse, House of Prayer No. 2 is a powerful tribute "to the power of words (and the Word)" (New York Times Book Review) that simultaneously upends the genre's conventions.

Also by the Author

The Ice at the Bottom of the World Stories(1990): Award Star PEN/Hemingway Award,. This collection of short stories, by turns sinister, hilarious, and heartwarming, deftly explores the strange, gothic territory of the American South.