By Dennis Abrams
Looking back, it seems almost inevitable.
I had recently had a fairly humongous fight on FB with a friend of mine over the whole memoir thing, arguing that I was sick of memoirs, tired of people writing memoirs who hadn’t actually done anything but lived their lives, that the level of self-absorption involved in writing a memoir (look! My life story, even if it involves just surviving a difficult childhood is SO worth reading about), is breathtaking, and if I don’t read another memoir for ten years I’d be perfectly happy about that.
Then I read Mark Richard’s House of Prayer No. 2: A Writers Journey Home, and found myself taking back every nasty thing I’ve ever said or thought about memoirs. The book is, quite honestly, brilliant, one of those in which I found page after page was folded over, with sentence after sentence that I had to read to other people underlined and marked. It’s that kind of book.
It’s a story of growing in a very Gothic south, labeled a “special child” because of hip defects that required a series of excruciating surgeries topped of with supposed mental handicaps, and being saved by art; by literature and by the act of writing. It’s a story of finding one’s faith, of, at least, being “slain in the spirit.”
And most of all, it’s a story that glories in writing and in language and in the act of story telling. And by telling his story in the second person, Richard achieves two very interesting effects. First, it helps him achieve an immediacy lacking in other memoirs:
“Satan demands to sift us like sand through his fingers, and God; knowing everything, allows it. You stand on a chair at a table full of friends at a soundside bar not from Jockey’s Ridge, everyone beered and jazzed up on white powder, and you suddenly stand wearing black sunglasses because even at night in your circumstances, light hurts your eyes, and you want an amen from the table, and they give you an amen, and you start a ranting preach about the coming of the Lord in glo-ree”
Second, it instills in the reader the curious and intriguing sense that one is eavesdropping on the older writer warning his younger self about the road he’ll have to take to reach the point where he’ll be able to write House of Prayer No. 2. Proust meets Southern Gothic – it’s an extraordinary book.
Mark Richard’s House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home is published in the United States by Doubleday.
Dennis Abrams is a writer in Houston, Texas. He is the curator and moderator of several Publishing Perspectives’ group reading sites, including The Cork-lined Room (on Proust), Project D (on Dostoevsky), and the forthcoming, The Play’s The Thing (on Shakespeare).