When a writer unleashes the second-person singular, watch out.
“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.
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.)
A promising job working as a DJ at a local radio station and an early affinity for William Faulkner devolve into a failed stint at Washington and Lee College. Richard rambles – a few pages chronicle either a day or a decade – but his propulsive prose makes “House of Prayer No. 2” a surprising page turner. Somehow, even his Charles Bukowski-style drinking binges become as poignant on the page as... well, as Bukowski’s own storied melancholy.
When luck strikes, it’s a swift and sudden bolt from the blue. “You are working digging irrigation ditches, and one day you go into a convenience store to buy some beer and check out the magazines,” Richard writes. “There’s an Atlantic Monthly in the rack, and you are surprised to see that you are a finalist in their American short story contest.”
In fits and starts, Richard’s career unfolds. He contributes to The New Yorker and Esquire. He interviews Tom Waits. He writes a novel. He writes for TV. He writes the movie “Stop-Loss.”
If “House of Prayer No. 2” loses steam, it’s when Richard succeeds. “You get a book contract for ten thousand dollars” doesn’t pack as much punch as “Your wife says you must go see your dying father, and she is right.” It’s always more interesting to read about struggling artists than sought-after ones.
If Richard’s memoir must be rescued from publishing-biz navel-gazing, Christianity – another surprise – does the job. “It’s a Sunday afternoon in late winter on the Tennessee mountaintop where there is that fifty-foot cross, and you’re alone deep in the woods when you get the call to ministry,” he writes.
In a literary sense, Richard’s conversion is a bit of a bummer. Nobody but the church choir likes it when a rabble-rouser gets too preachy. Still, trying to reconcile with his sick father and start his own family, Richard embraces a friendly, no-frills faith. “There is no hymnal,” he writes of the titular House of Prayer No. 2 in Camptown, Va., a church he helped rebuild. “Sometimes during the singing you sing, sometimes you sit and pray, and sometimes you are just sitting there looking at your watch.”
For a born-again Christian, this is rare, welcome humility. But it’s typical of Richard. Where other memoirists – evangelical and/or literary – just bluff and brag, he makes art.
Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.