In the 1990s, Mark Richard published three works of fiction, including the lavishly acclaimed "The Ice at the Bottom of the World." Readers may have wondered where he's been. In Hollywood, it turns out, writing scripts. And writing this memoir, "House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home."
It tells two stories: one about becoming a writer; the other about becoming a Christian. A dreamy, unfocused child who spent years in and out of charity hospitals, enduring painful surgeries, Richard grew up to win the PEN/Hemingway Award. Famous writers and editors encouraged him: Walker Percy, Rust Hills, Jacqueline Onassis, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown. He worked as a deckhand, bartender, ham salesman and private eye, and he eventually found God.
He first resented Jesus because of the children's hospital plaque that said "suffer the little children," which seemed to him a cavalier way of thinking about sick and dying children. His mother turned away from God, too, after a drunken priest called her a whore for decorating the altar while wearing culottes.
As an adult, Richard drank, drugged, squatted, pilfered. But God enters the text, and Satan appears a few pages later. Richard negotiated with God, sometimes desperately. By the end of the book, he has become his wife's baptism sponsor and godfather. He rebuilds a one-room Pentecostal church his mother joined after years of searching -- first trying astrology and physical fitness.
This book contains episodes as hauntingly beautiful as stories from "The Ice at the Bottom of the World." Yet these passages feel like set pieces that don't belong to the rest of the memoir, which tells the twinned stories of Richard's development as a writer and a man of God. Even these story lines compete for the reader's attention. Neither one becomes central and unflinchingly candid, bypassing the author's self-protective urge.
Richard's narration is especially evasive. For the first 26 pages, he refers to himself in third person: "Up at the top of the stairs stands the special child, hardly able to catch his breath." Third person perhaps emphasizes loneliness. But it feels remote, sentimental. The rest of the book is told in second person. In fiction, second-person narration sometimes urgently includes or accuses the reader, but its use in memoir is strangely aloof. It creates a sense of life lived without volition: "You get fired from your bartending job." "You wreck your car." "The pastor's mother puts her hand on your shoulder, and you are slain in the spirit."
The truth imbedded in every passage -- whether beatific or dolorous, tranquil or agitated -- seems camouflaged. Quirky narration aside, "House of Prayer No. 2" is a quintessentially American story about how the author made two vocations from scratch.
Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction and one memoir, "On the Outskirts of Normal," named one of the "Best Ten Books of 2010" by Barnes & Noble Review.