We were nervous about the second person narrative point of view in Mark Richard's new memoir, House of Prayer No. 2. We've read too many self-aware or old-fashioned second person accounts that distract from the real story. But if anyone could pull this off, we knew, it's Mark Richard, author of the award-winning short story collections The Ice at the Bottom of the World and Charity, as well as the novel Fishboy.
The second person narrative voice is often used as a device to seize the reader and make them complicit in the actions of the story. You did this, and then you did that, and this is what you thought about it. In the wrong hands, the second person can instead dissociate the reader from the work, calling constant attention to the literary trick, or worse, making the reader become someone they don't wish to be.
We address this petty grievance right up front only because it's the first and most striking distinction about House of Prayer No. 2, a work whose many other striking distinctions became quickly apparent as we read this book in a joyful frenzy. House of Prayer No. 2 is told with such flair that the second person achieves precisely what it should: it draws the reader in so deeply that it as if he or she is recalling their own story.
Richard was born with a hip defect in rural Virginia, which meant being handicapped without any distinction between mental or physical. He spent his childhood in and out of the hospital, an experience he details vividly, often with dark humor. (For extra reading, check out his holiday story "The Birds at Christmas," collected in Charity, in which rowdy boys at a children's hospital raise a fuss until they're allowed to watch the classic Hitchcock film.) Doctors, teachers, friends and family assumed Mark would be relegated to a special school until a teacher noticed his advanced reading skills.
From a precocious child DJ at a local radio station to a young wanderer, seizing life through a series of odd and fascinating jobs, Richard lives life to the fullest and sometimes roughest. He comes into contact with all sorts of memorable characters, both famous and unknown, and seems to waltz through one diverse episode to the next with the kind of whimsical ease of a suave Forrest Gump.
As he slowly begins to discover his gift as a writer, developing skills to become a prized author and professor, Richard is struck by what he describes as "the Call." He prepared to enter the seminary at Sewanee until a bishop convinces him that he would reach more people through his writing. Richard writes without presumption about his spiritual quest, which is filled with obstacles and stumbling and the occasional thrilling triumph. "Satan demands to sift us like sand through his fingers, and God, knowing everything, allows it," he writes.
One of the most elegant features of the book comes from the author's uncanny sense for using the peculiar images and instances in his life for great impact. We all have them, those strange details that stick out like cowlicks on a disheveled bedhead, and Mark uses them to enhance the overall tone of his journey, delving into the great gothic realms that ring true and make a deep impression.
You'll want to make time to come down and meet Mark Richard when he reads here February 24. He's a real gentleman, possessing great charisma, intellect, humor and kindness, all with a clever wicked streak. He was one of the most memorable guest writers to hold the Grisham Writing-in-Residence chair at Ole Miss in the 1990s, always sought and held in great regard. He's the guy you hope to sit next to at a dinner party, as Jackie Onassis requested after his impressive acceptance speech at a PEN/Faulkner Award's dinner. It makes for a great story, along with all the others, in this exceptional memoir, destined to become an enduring classic of Southern literature.
Mark Richard signs and reads from House of Prayer No. 2 Thursday 2/24 at 5:30 p.m. Reserve a signed first edition here.