House of Prayer No. 2
By Mark Richard
In the first few sentences of his intoxicating memoir, House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home, Mark Richard builds a unique relationship with the reader. He plucks you out of the real world and drops you directly into a bizarre parallel universe — one to which most would never be allowed entry without Richard’s key.
It’s not a world most would choose to roam. It’s a world filled with unbearable pain, both physical and emotional, which Richard describes in colors — first gray, then silver, then black.
He brilliantly makes this story your own.
From the start, you are described as a “special child,” and if you concentrate hard enough, you can make it “rain knives on people’s heads.” You are five when you charm your parents’ friends by reading a college chemistry book aloud during a party.
You also pay attention to the sights and sounds around you, noticing how your mother cries on the porch because she “keeps losing babies and her mother still won’t let her come home.” And how your father is a perfectionist who cannot accept his imperfect child. The doctor tells him the best remedy is to put nails in your hips. He also says with or without nails, you’ll be in a wheelchair by the time you’re thirty. Your father cheers you up by taking you to a cemetery before leaving you at the children’s hospital to have your body split apart and your bones broken. Then pinned back together. You wake to find yourself in a body cast surrounded by more of “God’s mistakes.”
The day your father is supposed to take you home, he doesn’t show. You are angry when he arrives two days later. Your mother asks you what you want for Christmas, and you tell her you want to saw off your legs.
“There’s a Christmas sing one night around the old magnolia tree in the park and your father wants you all to go. It has been snowing, and there is ice everywhere. You really don’t want to go out on the ice on crutches. Your father has been drinking bourbon and says it will be good for you to get out and get some air and see some people. You really don’t want to go. You’re going, goddamn it, your father says. You make it out to the car without falling on the ice on your crutches but you slip a couple of times, it’s dark. You’re cold, maybe because while you’ve been away you’ve grown out of your old winter coat, the sleeves are almost at your elbow. Your mother is scared, but she has your baby sister to attend to. You’ve taken so long to get to the car, there’s hardly any parking at the holiday sing. Your father has to park pretty far up a dark lane. I’m not getting out of the car, you say. Your father gets out, comes around, and pulls you out of the car by your collar. As he holds you up by the scruff of your neck, he props your crutches under your arms. Now walk, he says.
You stab at the frozen ground beneath the snow and swing your legs across the ice and make it to the magnolia tree just in time to sing the last verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Glory to the newborn Creep.”
You consider a man’s relationship to his God may be determined by his relationship to his father. Later, you name your father’s backhands “flying tigers” after his college mascot, Mike the Tiger, “whose tiny head ornamented the LSU class ring worn on the hand delivering the unexpected blow.”
You grow up, become a drifter, have one bizarre adventure after another, are called retarded, and along the way you make deals with God, ask him for signs, and question the very existence of something bigger than yourself. You sail to Castro’s Cuba, land in jail, and “pledge to God that if ever given the chance, you’ll go home, embrace your folks, go back to school. But given the chance, you’ll head for the Outer Banks instead.”
Your mother, with her daily prayers and saintlike spirit, has been told by Catholic relatives that she’s going to hell, but when you arrive home after spending four months without any contact, she has already cooked your favorite meal and set your place at the table. “For some reason known only to mothers and to God she has known that today is the day that you will be coming home.”
You wander, meeting more of God’s special children in bar rooms and beach shacks and back alley strip clubs, until one night you and your boss, “who has become one of your best friends, are laughing as hard as you ever will laugh in your entire life, and the only thing you want and the one thing you have wanted since is to always be able to laugh that hard again.”
Then you are moving to New York to become a writer, and you are stormed by three robbers at 4 a.m. in the subway before a miracle happens and suddenly the robbers are turned away by a presence that may or may not really be there, walking, singing, at the top of the stairs. You make it home safely, tip cash still in your pocket, and wake to a phone call from your mother. “She says the night before she had woken up wide awake because she had a feeling that you were in danger. She says you got down on her knees beside the bed and she prayed that you would be surrounded by legions of angels.”
God sends you signs, you feel the call, your book wins big awards and you dine with Jackie O. You spend weeks with Tom Waits and realize there is something primal about his music that calms you. You land in Oxford, Mississippi and befriend two of your favorite authors, Barry Hannah and Larry Brown. You marry your Godchild, you have a son, he has a “glitch in his spine.” You have another son, and your father dies, and you question Freud’s theory that the most important day in a man’s life is the day his father dies.
Your mother leaves the Catholic church and joins another, the one where her black friends go. It is called House of Prayer. You are a good son. You make your mother happy. You take her to her new church. You tune out as the preacher talks and you are cold and you want to go home. But slowly, Pastor Ricks’ sermons sink deep into your thoughts and you find yourself driving around with him, looking for land, discussing windows and doors and securing a contract for prisoners to build a new church. And you feed them. And you foot the bills for bricks and permits and all things needed to construct a sacred site. And when you and your mother attend the first service in the new building, House of Prayer No 2, the pastor’s mother has a confession. She says she had a vision of a white man helping them build their new church, and when she saw you walk into the House of Prayer fifteen years ago, she said “Praise the Lord, it’s him” and “with that, Mother Ricks lays her hand on your shoulder, and you, at last, are slain in the spirit.”
Then your journey ends. You close the book and return to your real life, apart from Richard’s path as a “special child.” But the experience has changed you, and you want more. You open the book, and you read it again.
Reviewer’s Note: As the editor-in-chief at Southern Lit Review, a steady stream of books crosses my desk each day. I usually skim each book, choosing a few to review personally and assigning the rest to contributors who seem a perfect match. But…when I opened House of Prayer No. 2, I read it cover to cover on my porch. I never even made it into the house. The next day, I read it again, and I realized there is something truly remarkable about Richard’s writing. His memoir has made it onto my all-time favorite list, and I hope you’ll add it to your list of favorites as well.
Mark Richard is the author of two award-winning short story collections, The Ice at the Bottom of the World and Charity, and a novel, Fishboy. His short stories and journalism have appeared in a number of publications, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, GQ, the Paris Review, Vogue, and the Oxford American. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. His television credits include Party of Five, Chicago Hope, and Huff, and he has written numerous movies both for television and the big screen. After years of life in the South and then New York, he now resides in Los Angeles with his wife Jennifer Allen and their three sons.