A Handbook of American Prayer
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
Thunder's Mouth Press / Avalon Publishing
US First Edition Hardcover
Publication Date: 09-09-2004
263 Pages; $22.00
Date Reviewed: 02-15-05
"Be careful what you wish for," we're often told. "You might get your wish." When Wardlin Stuart accidentally kills a man in a bar, he ends up in prison. While there, he's stabbed, and almost dies. But a spur-of-the-moment wish to live, which indeed comes to pass, leads him to believe wishing, wanting, praying for something with enough focus "might be seen as an immoderate act of physics, a functional means of effecting small changes in reality." He scales up slowly, creating specific poems and prayers that request small but specific results -- and succeeds. Soon he's selling prayers to the other prisoners, writing them in a book, a sort of self-help manual for wish fulfillment he calls 'A Handbook of American Prayer'. While still in prison, he manages to have the book published. The wishes start to flow like wine -- as do the unintended consequences.
'A Handbook of American Prayer' is one of those fictional works that will have the reader flipping the pages and wondering why somebody -- Lucius Shepard himself -- has not yet written the book created by Wardlin Stuart, not yet developed "prayerstyle". Once described by Shepard, the concept seems so natural it's almost obvious. Shepard's novel is compelling on a number of levels. It's alternately funny, surreal, frightening and tense. Shepard effectively orchestrates plot points, conceptual riffs, satire and graceful characters, creating a spiritual mystery. The core of the novel, the kernel that keeps us riveted is the first-person prose narration of Wardlin Stuart.
Shepard is known as an "American magical realist" for his ability to write fantasy that is so carefully grounded in reality that it easily transcends genre. As a prose stylist, he's something of a chameleon, at ease with flowing, surreal imagery in a mood piece like 'Viator' while capable of gritty noir in works like his voodoo-tinged police procedural 'Floater'. 'A Handbook of American Prayer' finds him writing lyrical Americana, tough prose leavened with a dash of poetic insight. Reading 'A Handbook of American Prayer' is like listening to the entrancing story of a charismatic but non-religious preacher. Shepard is funny, biting, acerbic and always observant.
Stuart's shtick is strictly non-denominational. But his success is undeniable, and as he becomes a celebrity his life becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Paroled from prison, he falls into the arms of a woman he met via mail while inside. They're compatible and quickly fall in love and marry. His wife, Therese, runs a small souvenir shop in desert town. But as Stuart's star ascends, and "prayerstyle" becomes nationally known, Stuart draws down the ire of fundamentalist Christian ministers. He's also drawn the attention of what appears to be a small god that he himself created. He begins to wonder if he's mad, or merely angry. But his anger is beyond doubt when a fire-and-brimstone preacher named Monroe Treat comes after him.
For readers who enjoy shooting fundamentalist fish in a barrel, 'A Handbook of American Prayer' is a handbook of American fun. Shepard sets up one delicious encounter after another and though he walks the fine line of writing about real celebrities, he does so with such assurance that it makes the novel even more fun to read. He effectively ups the ante time after time, and provides a trenchant commentary on fame in the process. The power of faith and trite souvenirs, the thrills and dangers of obsessive fans all provide entertaining scenes and riffs. Most importantly, Shepard knows how to make all this pay off without going so far over the top that the delicate suspension of disbelief is broken. He keeps it real until the bitter end.
'A Handbook of American Prayer' is built around Wardlin Stuart, who benefits greatly from the straightforward approach that Shepard bestows upon him. Therese, Stuart's wife upon his emergence from prison has the guts and gumption to stand firm next to and occasionally against Stuart. Treat Monroe, while something of a fish with a bull's eye painted on his side is nonetheless an entertaining and pretty complex fish. Rest assured that you won't forget your visit to his house. The numerous side players, both famous celebrities and unknown extras, all get enough shade to seem real but not so much as to distract.
If 'A Handbook of American Prayer' is perhaps a bit more delightful in the opening passages than it is in the closing personal apocalypse comes to pass, it's attributable to "prayerstyle's" cunning conceptual framework. You can only climb that scaffolding once, only enjoy the view from the top once. But at any given moment, 'A Handbook of American Prayer' reads like lightning. On the way down from the lofty peaks, readers will want to know, need to know not only what's going to happen but also why it is happening. More fun than a showdown in the Larry King corral, 'A Handbook of American Prayer' fulfills our wish while shooting those fish.