Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Handbook of American Prayer by Lucius Shepard

This is yet another excellent Concord Press free book (in exchange for a donation to your favorite charity). A perceptive writer and original stylist, Shepard, over the years, has ventured into various genres, describing the lives of those on the margins of the culture.  Considering the role religion still plays in American politics and public life, A Handbook of American Prayer is as relevant a novel as one is going to read this year.  It's a dark tale that  revolves around Stuart Wardlin, a violent brawler yet strangely innocent, who, while serving a prison sentence for murder, writes a best-selling, self-help book about something called prayerstyle- a DIY style of prayer that combines poetry and wish-fulfillment. While inside he corresponds with a woman whom he eventually marries, and the two of them move to nowhere, Arizona. Having mellowed, Wardlin becomes, in no time at all, a cult hero, but one who can't  escape  the product and celebrity status he's created. Of course, in rejecting God and organized religion,  prayerstyle falls foul of the representatives of God Inc.. Wardlin, who, as Shepard has said, cons himself in order to con others, is eventually visited by a character from his own prayerstyle, the Lord of Loneliness who functions as a 21st century Grand Inquisitor. The plot, though sounding far-fetched, is, as Russell Banks says in his introduction, all too plausible. My favorite passage might be when Wardlin is visited by his own metaphorical creation, who explains to Wardlin his entropic theory:

"Neolithic culture, they didn't have time or the wherewithal to produce anything except what they needed to survive...Maybe they carved toys for the kids. Toy mammoths and shit. That's about it. But as societies grew more sophisticated, more technologically competent, the more trivial, whimsical objects they produced. Now we're in the Golden Age of the trivial and the whimsical. Eventually society will produce nothing but trinkets. Everything will have been trivialized. Every resource trashed, every idea reduced to a slogan, every boulderlike edifice crumbled into rubble. We'll inhabit a landscape of lizard-shaped ashtrays and digital crickets and Harry Potter oven mittens. Art will be manufactured, not ripped from the soul. Greatness defined by merchandisers. Love that once inspired poetry, novels, symphonies, and inspires pop songs...it'll inspire some even more vapid form of insignificance. Hell, we're almost there. Your book's perfect example. You've taken that whole burning-bush, heavenly-glory thing and marketed it as your basic build-a-Jehovah kit. That's why I admire it so much. It's cutting-edge."

Shepard not only savages the role of religion, celebrity culture and the need for easy answers, if not  instant gratification, but addresses issues of masculinity, and the mis-use of language, as well as the relationship between between prayer and poetry. Whether we're in the final stage of the age of me or not,  Lucius Shepard has  again written another provocative, entertaining and important novel.