JULY 26, 2011
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 saved as well.
First, though, must come darkness. The life of those called by the Holy Spirit can seem chaotic, and Richard’s is no exception. After getting kicked out of college, Richard goes to live on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and works on fishing and shrimp boats. He drinks and gets involved with an underage girl. One night at the wheel of a little shrimper, he realizes he is steering into “a dark that will stay dark for a long time.” This darkness includes, among other things, his father leaving his mother, a girl who slits her wrists, a trip to a whorehouse in a trailer park, and long nights of near-death drunken driving. He moves to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. He moves from sublet to sublet, with a single suitcase and a portable typewriter. He survives by proofreading legal documents on Wall Street and sleeping at a performance space where a beautiful girl performs topless wearing the bottom of a mermaid costume.
GQ begins to publish his stories and he gets good non-fiction assignments to interview Jimmy Carter and Tom Waits. More celebrity encounters follow. He’s awarded the Pen/Hemingway prize by Norman Mailer for his first novel. After he meets Jackie Onassis at a dinner party, she pays for him to see a doctor at The Hospital for Special Surgery. He marries the writer Jennifer Allen, daughter of a famous football coach, George Allen, and sister to a Virginia governor and United States senator, George Allen Jr. Though he feels lost, Richard keeps daring God to show him signs. Pissing off a dock he sees a shooting star so bright he feels he could read the newspaper by it. Driving out of New York City on a book tour, he requests a sign as he enters the Lincoln Tunnel. Coming out of the tunnel he sees a car aflame in the highway medium. “It is a fireball burning as hot as is possible for a vehicle to burn prior to the flames igniting the gas tank for an apocalyptic explosion. You pull over and take pictures with a disposable camera.” But he doesn’t find redemption. He goes to 28 cities on the book tour, and returns “with mixed reviews and a dog that is half beagle and half rottweiler.”
Through it all, Richard longs for a more coherent spiritual life. The Call comes while he is teaching at Vanderbilt and he begins to pray his “ass off.” He makes little trips to the seminary on campus. He makes plans to enroll in the fall until an Episcopal bishop advises him that he will reach more souls by writing than by being a minister.
Soon after, he gets a different kind of call. The day after he’s had surgery to amputate part of his left hip, the phone rings with an offer from Hollywood. Would Richard be interested in flying out to Los Angeles to interview for a writing job with the hit television show “Party of Five”? Richard pops pills, gets up on crutches and hobbles onto a plane. A special medical station wagon is there to pick him up at the Los Angeles airport. By the time he climbs up the hundred steps to the office where the interview will take place, Richard has sweated completely through his new khaki suit. He gets the job anyway.
Richard’s story is inspirational not because of conventional redemption or simple answers to his struggle, but because he is so honest about both his doubt and his openness to a wide variety of God’s manifestations. In Los Angeles Richard has trouble finding a community of faith. It’s only when he goes home to his mother in Virginia and visits her church, House of Prayer No. 2, that he feels a connection. He is moved by Pastor Rick’s teachings. “Pastor Rick’s sermon is about Jacob’s spiritual beginnings and how the world will try to erase your spiritual beginnings and how sometimes it is necessary to go back to where one’s spiritual journey began.” Richard decides to tithe 10 percent to the little church. Soon Pastor Rick is calling him regularly with plans for a new church building to replace the small shabby outpost and Richard, though he cannot really afford it, pitches a big chunk of his advance from a screenplay to help build the new church. And its here, during the dedication of the new building, as this beautiful book closes that Richard’s finally comes closest to the mystery that has tracked him throughout his life. He is “slain in the spirit,” he says, and enters for a moment that pure unbound place of grace. As we read House of Prayer No. 2, opportunities abound for us to do the same.