I first saw a copy of Fishboy through the window of a Virginia bookstore. This was 1997 or so. I was walking through Richmond with Vincent, about my only friend in the state at this time, on a short break from college. He’d read the book; the cover stopped him in his tracks. He swore I’d love it. I went inside and bought a copy.
It’s been almost fifteen years, but I can vaguely recall the first few minutes I sat down with Mark Richard’s novel. Those first few sentences started with something like: “I began as a boy, as a human-being boy, a boy who fled to sea, a boy with a whistling lisp and the silken-tipped fingers of another class”—and headed from there into a world where all of the p’s popped hard against the roof of your mouth, the b’s rhymed with each other, and the s’s slithered along your tongue. It was like reading with another dimension, a book with a volume knob.
A few years later, while I was living in Montana, Vincent rode the greyhound bus across country for a visit. In his bag was The Ice at the Bottom of the World. He’d found a copy of Richard’s story collection—a book I didn’t even know existed until then. Days later, we took the train back to the East Coast, and I was allowed another Mark Richard reading experience—this one starting with “At night, stray dogs come up underneath our house to lick the leaking pipes.”
I left the country not many months prior to the release of Mark Richard’s third book of fiction, another amazing collection called Charity. I’d lost contact with Vincent by this time, and it took me several years to discover Charity.
Luckily, the Internet was just then becoming useful for finding this sort of information. For several years, a Mark Richard Google search yielded a lone interview on a website called Bold Type (which I now understand to be a marketing arm of Random House). I reread those questions and answers many times. Richard claimed he started stories with the sounds of the words—one of many small revelations for a wannabe writer like myself. He traced his desire to write stories to a childhood spent in body casts, dependant on others to help him with basic corporeal functions. It was utterly important, he said, to create a universe in which he was an all-powerful god.
In the early years of this century, I found myself in Montana again, waiting tables and serving coffee. I took my breaks outside, even in cold winter afternoons. Passing the minutes between shifts, I often flipped through one of the glossy magazines from our rack. On one cold break, I came across a piece entitled: “Rolltop Mantra of the Outer Banks: Creepy but Tranquil in North Carolina.” Below was Mark Richard’s byline. This was nonfiction, an essay about adolescence on the North Carolina coast. I reread the piece on all of my breaks, until they rotated that magazine out and replaced it with a current issue. For a fan of Richard’s fiction, the Rolltop Mantra was like a peek behind the curtain. Vincent and I used to scratch our heads at the impossible-sounding author notes in the backs of his other books: Radio DJ? Commercial fisherman? Campaign manager? Private detective? Bartender? Body casts? Were these things made up? Could all of them fit inside one life? The Rolltop Mantra satisfied the curiosities of my younger self in spades.
At some stage, I tried to send Mark Richard a letter via Author Mail—an institution by then in its twilight. Nothing ever came of it; the publisher I sent it to hadn’t, at that time, released a book by Richard in over a dozen years.
In graduate school, I finally found a handful of other people familiar with Richard’s work. One professor explained that the author’s last name was pronounced with an emphasis on the final syllable, in the French style, which was news to me. Assigned to teach writing classes for the first time, I used Richard’s stories and essays. I’ve used them in almost every writing class I’ve taught since, and have often imparted the advice from that Bold Type interview: draw inspiration from sounds, create a universe in which you are god.
Oddly, it was an excerpt in the same glossy magazine that alerted me to a new Mark Richard book. House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home is a memoir of the author’s life, told in second person, with all of the stylistic vigor and visceral urgency of Richard’s fiction. We get to experience the charity hospitals, the body-casts, and the crude pseudo-surgery that inspired some of the most vivid moments in Charity. We see the childhood in Louisiana swamps and Virginia tobacco country so incredibly rendered and embellished in Strays and stories like it. Perhaps the most entertaining sections cover Richard’s early adulthood on drug-addled trawlers and Outer Banks fishing boats—undoubtedly the fodder for Fishboy.
But this book also details the compelling journey of Richard as a writer. There is not ego stroking here, no ode to the author’s own work ethic or strength of vision. Instead, Richard depicts the gods of success—in both publishing and Hollywood—as often cruel, sometimes generous, and always indifferent to his plans. He writes with honesty and humility about the starts and stops along his career, and shows them as relative to more important things—like family, and the ability to walk without pain.
Critics often tag Richard’s work as Southern Gothic, and struggle for a label that conveys its surreal, barely possible happenings. In his new book, Mark Richard doesn’t so much transcend Realism and Southern Gothicism, but pushes both traditions to their limit. It’s an earnest look at disability, family, petty crime, art, spirituality, and redemption—not afraid to be tender or sentimental when necessary. House of Prayer No. 2 is the story of a remarkable life, told by one of the most gifted lyrical writers of our age. For a fan of Richard’s earlier work, this memoir is a matter of immense satisfaction. For the uninitiated, it’s a great place to start.