In the opening of A Handbook of American Prayer, by Lucius Shepard, Wardlin is tending bar when a woman walks in before opening hours. He gives her a hard time, but her boyfriend gets it even rougher, when they get in a fight and Wardlin accidentally kills him. Though Wardlin isn’t the nicest guy in the world, he’s smart and perceptive, and you worry about what sort of trouble he’ll get into next. In prison, he develops a craft he calls prayerstyle. By writing poems, focusing his thoughts, and asking for small things, he gets results. When he’s about to get out, he prays for a woman and success.
The woman is Therese, who writes him while he’s in prison, and keeps loving him once he gets out. The success comes from prayerstyle itself, as he writes a book and hits the media circuit to sell it. Most of the middle of the book is occupied by satirizing the attention given to a media celebrity. This is a rather well-worn horse to get beaten. Naturally, Wardlin is too sensible to be drawn in.
About 150 pages in, Wardlin’s invented god, the Lord of Loneliness, appears. Or is he just some guy named Darren? Like softspoken, this book keeps you guessing about what is going on. This ambiguity gets overwhelmed when Monroe Treat, a pritcher-man infuriated by prayerstyle’s lack of jesus-ness, becomes Wardlin’s deadly enemy. It all comes to a head in a (overly long) nightmarish chase sequence.
The whole story is told with great, masculine energy, but what struck me most was the way Wardlin treated women. He is both attracted to and repelled by the woman who walks into the bar. He is tough with her, but not mean. And then when he meets Therese, a relationship that could be purely opportunistic becomes real. Through all the twists and turns, their commitment deepens. I know it sounds sentimental, but it’s all clear-eyed and frank. In the end, the only thing that is not ambiguous is the love between them.
Tomorrow: Stars Seen Through Stone