Rating: 3.5/5The use of the second person is a particularly tricky feat to pull off in literature. It is a point of view that can come off as gimmicky in the hands of even the most talented writers. Mark Richard, the author of the short story collections The Ice at the Bottom of the World and Charity, as well as the novel Fishboy, ups the ante even more: he writes his autobiography from that strange vantage point. Of course when your book begins with “Say you have a ‘special child,’ which in the South means one between Down’s and dyslexic,” the use of the second person can seem both strangely intimate and yet hold the reader at arm’s length.
House of Prayer No. 2 is more than Richard’s origin story. It’s his difficult childhood, wayward young adult years and successful middle age condensed into a slim volume that barely tops out at 200 pages. We zoom through his struggles with a hip disability as a child while growing up in the South during the ‘60s, leading us not only to the discovery of his writer’s voice but his eventual finding of faith.
In the early sections of the book, the South lives and breathes through Richard’s prose. It is a place where a “special child” doesn’t fit in, especially a child whose teachers deem both a genius and “retarded.” This dichotomy rips at the seams of Richard’s early years as he can read complicated texts by the age of six but still tries to bite strangers at parties. Social awkwardness is the least of Richard’s worries as a congenital hip defect lands him in a special hospital for disabled children for long spells where he must not only submit to a body cast but brutal operations designed to stave the inevitable confinement to a wheelchair.
Though Richard may have showed talent at a young age, it takes him a long time before he can claim that gift. During his teenage years and into his early twenties, Richard takes a detour, living on fishing boats and squatting in beach towns, drinking with other unruly friends and bedding all kinds of women. Richard claims his transgressions with frank clarity but perhaps this is one reason for that second person point of view. Perhaps House of Prayer No. 2 is an exorcism of sorts now that Richard has found faith and his refusal to use the word “I” is a way of renouncing those early days.
With only a single novel and two collections, one may wonder if Richard has earned the right to an autobiography. He didn’t create a vaccine or fight off a terrorist attack. But while the ordinary life can also be the most fascinating, Richard’s prose is the main attraction here. Richard makes great lengths to evoke the shadowy milieus of his youth – from the children’s hospital filled with lovable weirdoes to the seedy dive bars and bachelor pads of his early adult years. The prose may be spare but Richard knows how to fill in the details. “At the mother’s mother’s house in Louisiana, they have spicy chicken and rice and beer in coolers in the kitchen and black coffee and fried bread and brothers coming in off shifts from the oil fields and refineries to see their big sister, the brothers tossing the special child up in the air and taking him out back to see how they are putting a stock car together,” reads one sentence. It’s a doozy but it certainly paints a vivid picture.
Richard’s spiritual awakening only comes in the book’s final pages and he has less to say about the epiphany than the events that led up to it. After trying to enroll in a seminary, Richard throws himself into a new project: helping a black Pentecostal church in his hometown fund and build a new building. Richard chronicles the steps and impediments he faced to get the church built but House of Prayer No. 2 ends on a jubilant note. Is the church or this book Richard’s ultimate testament? I suppose it could really be both.