New York Times writer Neil Genzlinger socked it to the memoir last week, rightly observing that nowadays, the only requirement for writing one is that you have done one of the following:
…. had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight … taught an under-privileged child, adopted an under-privileged child or been an under-privileged child [or were] raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.
In the old days, says Genzlinger, you had to earn the right to turn the spotlight on yourself: “by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.”
I have no fewer than six current memoirs stacked on the table in my workroom, including one Genzlinger takes to task, Disaster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky, and I Totally Meant to Do That, by Jane Borden, the blurb for which says Jane was “reared in a proper Southern home in North Carolina, sent to boarding school in Virginia, then went on to join a sorority in Chapel Hill.” Her claim to fame? When she moved to NYC, she discovered that her polite-society grooming was useless.
Her memoir is recommended reading “for anyone who has moved away from home.” Can I see a show of hands?
In his introduction to the Best American Essays 2004, Louis Menand offered this description of voice, which has everything to do, I think, with who should write a memoir:
What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that down on paper is a depressing … experience. What you are trying to do when you write is to transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice—except that it comes out as writing.
Last October, an old friend of mine who is also a publishing rep offered me the chance to go through her boxes of advance reader’s copies. Most of the “big” titles, like Tea Obrecht’s anticipated Tiger’s Wife, had been handed out. Still, there were dozens of books left, and you never know, so I looked through all of it. And lo and behold, there it was, a book by Mark Richard.
Some background may be in order, as it’s been 22 years since the publication of Mark Richard’s electrifying first book, Ice at the Bottom of the World, a collection of short stories that won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award. Fishboy, a novel, followed in 1991; Charity, his last book of stories, came out in 1998.
He wrote intoxicating, kaleidoscopic fiction, populated by a parade of broken souls permanently bruised by life—outcasts, misfits, freaks and holy fools—with a particular focus on children. Critics hailed Richard as the “heir apparent” to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and showered him with praise and awards.
Fast forward 13 lean years while Richard disappeared into Hollywood and the world of scripts and TV series.
Fans who wondered if he would ever write fiction again will be glad to know that his new memoir, House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.95, 208 pages), not only reacquaints us with Richard’s charismatic prose style, but improves on it.
Born in Saint Charles, Louisiana, the only son of Cajun parents, Richard (pronounced “Ri-shard”) grew up poor in Texas and Southside, Virginia, the victim of a childhood as disadvantaged and surreal as any found in his short stories.
The book opens with an entreaty that recalls “the child” Richard has written about on so many occasions: nameless, almost a stray, a crippled orphan. But this time, it’s him.
Say you have a “special child,” which in the South means one between Down’s and dyslexic. Birth him with his father away on Army maneuvers [and] further frighten the mother, age twenty, with the child’s convulsions. There’s something “different” about this child, the doctors say.
The word “special” means many things in this affecting history: Richard’s precociousness, his ability to see ghosts, the way dogs never bite him, and the congenital hip deformity that kept him in and out of state hospitals through countless operations and returns home—often spending months in a full body cast—to an unpredictable, violent father and an emotionally bereft mother.
It also describes “God’s mistakes”— the impoverished, crippled children Richard met at the hospitals, most of them more malformed than he, who would one day end up so compassionately redrawn as characters in his stories.
One…is the guy who is called the Human Skeleton. He ranges round on his bed waiting for someone to come too close so he can bite the person … Later when you are in a wheelchair and you can sit beside his bed and feed him crayons, he lets you pet his head like a dog and he pats your arm and howls.
The second person presents readers with a different perspective than if Richard told his story in a more traditional first person: What if you were him, he asks, in a bed next to the Human Skeleton? What if it were you living half the year among what a fellow patient called “sin spawn: children with withered legs, legs of different lengths, bent-up legs, legs in steel and leather braces, hobbling kids crying and carrying the smell of places where people live who tote water in buckets from a well and go to the bathroom in sheds out back.”
The language Richard uses to spin the straw of his sometimes devastating life into gold is poetic and unsentimental, characterized by a love of all things outside the realm of normal, ranging from strange to grotesque to ghostly. Even as a child, immobilized in a body cast, Richard knew what to look for outside his window: “There goes one of the sisters who used to babysit you, the sisters sharing a bedroom in a house in the next block where one night a hand holding a screwdriver floated into their room.”
Doctors predicted that by age 30, Richard would be wheelchair bound. But this never happens, despite many years spent on crutches, walking with a cane, more bone graft “carpentry,” and working enough jobs for five people: disc jockey, commercial fisherman, bartender, ditch-digger, military newspaper editor, private investigator, and probably a few he’s left out. Instead, during that magical thirtieth year, an editor at Esquire publishes one of Richard’s short stories and his writer’s journey begins.
It’s a journey that returns repeatedly to the idea that writing may not be Richard’s true calling, that he might be better off as a man of faith. The prospect of joining the seminary haunts him for years, but each time he closes in on his dream or wanders too far from writing, fate steps in, in the form of neon coincidences and golden opportunities that fall out of the sky—editors magically pull Richard’s stories out of slush piles; a class with Grove Press editor Gordon Lish leads to a $10,000 book deal; a student Richard taught happens to work for Robert Altman, who would like Richard to write a screenplay based on the title story from his first book; Hollywood calls: “They want to know if you will write for their TV show.”
Yet “there is still the matter of this call on your heart.” The call brings him closer, always, to the “home” of the title: The 15 years worth of trips Richard makes to his hometown of Virginia to sit in a small white cinder-block church whose congregants are routinely ‘slain in the spirit.”His search for his “spiritual beginnings.“ The sense of arrival when his son is “born with a glitch in his spine” that means by the time he’s five, “You are now the parent your father was, driving him to special clinics, watching as the doctors make him run, walk, stand on one foot.”
When it comes down to who’s qualified to write a memoir, Richard wins hands down. Not only has he done and seen things most of us never will, the details in even his most casual exchanges convey a mystery: “In Calvi it is the off-season, and you stay in an old hotel where you are the only guest and the woman from whom you have to ask for extra blankets has tears tattooed at the corners of her eyes.”
We can only hope that this unsparing, often achingly funny book marks the return of a writer who, more than any, has earned the right to turn the spotlight on himself. His singing has been greatly missed.
Read a 1998 interview with Richard here, where he says “a lot of characters come to me purely through the sound of their voice,” and talks about his childhood, writing, Tom Waits, and adapting “The Ice at the Bottom of the World” for filmmaker Robert Altman.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe sings my kind of prayers (thanks to Tinsley Ellis for finding this clip):