When it comes to choosing what to read, I take guidance from many sources. Word of mouth, NPR (both Fresh Air and Weekend Edition), Book TV and other book bloggers have all provided me with great suggestions. While all of those have been great resources when it comes to reading recommendations, over the years my public library has steered me toward countless excellent books. Had I not taken the time to walk along the shelves or explore the new books display there’s a good chance I would have never discovered great books like Steve Pemberton’s A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home, Nigel Cliff’s Holy War: How Vasco de Gama’s Epic Voyage Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations or Reza Kahlili’s A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran. The latest in this category of excellent books I discovered through my public library is Mark Richard’s 2011 memoir House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home.
In House of Prayer No. 2 Richard recounts his life, beginning with his early childhood and the crude, almost brutal series of painful surgical operations he underwent in hopes of correcting a hip deformity. After lengthy stays in a “crippled children’s hospital”, being blessed with a clinically depressed mother and a physically abusive (and increasingly alcoholic) father, and being told by doctors that by the age of 30 he would be confined to a wheelchair, things looked pretty grim for Richard. But thanks to his high intelligence and writing ability he eventually succeeds, even if it’s in spite of himself.
I’ve read a ton of memoirs in my time but I’ve never read one quite like this. First of all, it’s written in the second person. I think in the hands of a lesser writer this would have resulted in some sort of artsy, post-modern piece of crap, but with Richard at the helm it works because his storytelling feels intimate. Second, House of Prayer No. 2 reads like a novel: an outrageously funny and absurd kind of novel. While reading House of Prayer No. 2 I found myself laughing out loud numerous times, including a few times in public. Drunken, self-destructive, reckless and hedonistic, Richard’s life as recounted in his memoir reads like something by Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk or Austrian novelist Thomas Glavinic. Growing up in the American South with an abusive father, Richard’s life also has a Pat Conroy kind of feel to it. Lastly, while one would not expect given the wildly outrageous life Richard has lived, in his later years he comes to embrace a Christian faith of sorts. While he might have youthfully sown his wild oats just like St. Augustine or addressed his feelings of existential longing by seeking signs of God’s existence much like C.S. Lewis, in the end his faith, when compared to that of the previously mentioned giants is not easily categorized. It does however feel honest, decent and earthy, much like that of writer Anne Lamont.
Not only is this is a surprisingly enjoyable memoir, it’s one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended.