MARK RICHARD GROWS UP in a Southern town that is timeless, mythic, and strange. Black families get around by mule and wagon. The Ku Klux Klan burns crosses in yards. A mysterious old black man lives on the town’s edge. People call him Hogbear and he wears a military jacket and rides a bike covered with streamers and bits of colored cloth. In a mansion on High Street where a pair of spinster sisters live, a strange light continually circles the ceiling. Richard himself is one of the town’s odd characters. A “special child,” he wears his fathers Army helmet to school, tries to pass off Confederate money, pretends to speak with a French accent and makes nooses for his playmate’s dolls, hanging them from the lower limbs of a tree.
While some books set in the South lean on nostalgia and sentimentality, Richard’s amazing new memoir, House of Prayer No. 2, avoids the Old South clichés. Richard, one of our best prose stylists, incorporates regional syntax, fabulist imagery and carefully-wrought interiority in perfect sentence after perfect sentence. Written in a second-person that gives the prose the power of an incantation, House of Prayer No. 2 unfolds in short lyric scenes that are always charming and often hilarious, building toward a complex spiritual message that proves at odds with the one provided by more traditional spiritual memoirs: namely that Mark Richard is completely clueless to the methods of his own salvation and that he himself is the biggest threat to his own soul.
Unlike many memoirs, Richard’s story is not about getting over anything: not his small-town existence, not his congenital hip problems. Instead he sinks into his memories, not judging them, but instead mining them for humor and sensual detail. Even the tremendous pain he suffers in childhood is evoked rather than amplified, hyperbolized, or lamented. Twice he suffers through the ordeal of a full body cast. At one point, two orderlies hold him down as his surgeon uses pliers to pull the nails out of his hips. “Its not so much the pain, it’s the squeaking of the nails in the bones as he had to twist them back and forth like he’s pulling them out of wet lumber.”
At age of 13 Richard’s voice drops and he gets a job as an announcer, DJ, and technician at the local radio station. On Sunday mornings he hosts The Gospel Show. Listening to The Mighty Clouds of Joy sing a hymn and watching “the little black preacher,” he first gets religion:
You study the little black man who is off and running now, his eyes closed as he preaches and starts ticking back and tocking forth in his chair, his microphone is picking up the squeak in his chair and there is nothing you can do about it. Watching this man through the studio glass, you see that he is a believer. He believes in the hope of redemption and in the promise of salvation. You lose track of time. You let him run over. You wish you had his passion for Christ Jesus. You think that someday you would like to be sav...