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House of Prayer, No. 2

In powerful prose, a writer sketches his eventful journey to a better self.

By Justin Moyer / February 21, 2011

House of Prayer No. 2 By Mark Richard Knopf Doubleday 224 pp

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When a writer unleashes the second-person singular, watch out.

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“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning,” begins Jay McInerney’s landmark 1984 novel “Bright Lights, Big City.”

With one simple “you,” McInerey forces his readers to identify with an unnamed protagonist who’s been up all night snorting cocaine at sketchy clubs in Manhattan.

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Those readers could be Franciscan nuns, members of U2, or Idahoan tea partyers sporting Sarah Palin bumper stickers on their Ford 150s. It doesn’t matter. With the second person, McInerney smuggles his art into his audience’s subconscious.

This is a powerful move – heavy artillery in any author’s arsenal. But deploying the second person in a memoir, as Mark Richard does in the entrancing House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home, is like dropping an atomic bomb. Richard’s prose is gorgeous – and hits with a force that sometimes stuns.

“Say you are a special child,” Richard writes. Born in the 1950s to Gulf Coast Cajun parents struggling to adapt to life in Virginia’s tobacco country, Richard’s breathless description of his chronic hip problems is worth quoting at length: “Say one reason you are special is because there is something wrong with your legs. You cannot run. Your legs will not move fast enough. When you try to run, your hips click and pop. When you have to run a race ... you pretend to trip and fall and not finish the race. You avoid footraces; you avoid running at all. When something bad happens and everyone else runs away, rocks thrown through greenhouse glass, loose spikes thrown at passing caboose windows, fishing boats untethered along a riverbank, you know you will have to face whoever is coming in their anger. You learn you must never get caught.”

Never getting caught, however, does not come easily to this unlikely writer. In and out of hospitals, Richard spends as much time under or recovering from the knife as he does rambling around the small Southern town that ill suited his alcoholic father and homesick mother.

When able-bodied, he’s usually in trouble. “The first time you are arrested it is for assaulting a police officer,” Richard writes. (As a teenager, he shot a cop in the face with a water pistol.)

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