[A Handbook of American Prayer by Lucius Shepard. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004, ISBN: 1-56858-281-1]
Wardlin Stuart, though ever-freighted with a genius for distilling a given situation into its attendant parts and divining the surest path to self-interest, is the grandest of all fuckups. In his own words, “I thought this was a canny strategy, a real savvy move, dismissing the fact that for a very long time now, I had been consistently prone to do the wrong thing.”
We meet Wardlin at The Galley, a restaurant at the mouth of the Puget Sound, his place of employment/bedmate-buffet, and we immediately understand him as he understands himself, which is to say, affirmatively and insufficiently. In a deftly orchestrated comedy of errors, Wardlin’s cozy world rapidly disintegrates as he’s hustled from the safe cocoon of life as a bartender in a tourist town, to incarceration for murder in the Washington State Peniteniary. There he spends the first part of his ten-year sentence dodging responsibility and dreaming of revenge against the woman who put him there. That is, until the day he is stabbed by another inmate and left bleeding and alone to die in a lonely stairwell. Wardlin miraculously survives, and discovers a power within him he’d never suspected but immediately seizes upon as an opportunity. Wardlin finds his prayers are answered, all of them.
As the steamroller of celebrity comes chugging along behind him, Wardlin tries to chart a course to love and redemption through the tricky maze of smoke and mirrors set before him. When he removes himself from the public eye, refusing the fame his devotees and detractors bestow upon him, the fight is brought home to him. Reluctant cult leader, reclusive international celebrity and heretic, Wardlin’s battle, like the arena he fights in, is only partially what it seems, though what it seems is weird enough.
A Handbook of American Prayer is a forceful examination of the true American religion, a not-so-stable blend of fundamentalism, fame, and fortune. Televangelists, movie stars, and best-selling authors serve as the prophets to which we rally, fad diets and fashionable cut-out philosophy the Clarion Call of our national faith. The unimportant becomes the sacred, or as one of Shepard’s characters puts it, “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.”
Not so much an indictment as a celebration, I get the feeling that Shepard views his subject, not with the haute couture disdain of the intellectual/outsider sneering at the great American hypocrisy, but rather as a fellow reveler who merely wishes to clarify just what it is we’re all partying about. Through Wardlin Stuart’s eyes, those of a bootstrap-cognoscenti looking for an easy angle, we understand a little of the yearning and frustration of an age and a generation that, more than any other before it, has everything and nothing of what it needs and wants to be content.
Considering today’s particularly charged political climate, works like Handbook serve as a blunt reminder that the power of faith lies not in miraculous works and prayers answered, but in the people who count on them as proof that everything’s gonna be alright. Shepard taps into an arterial flow of consciousness that’s served to propel a fundamentalist agenda to the very heights of secular power and transformed our nation in the process. If there’s another explanation for George W. Bush’s second term than the misplaced power of faith and fear, I’ve yet to encounter a competent elucidation of it. People are, Shepard knows and shows us with this book, the sum of all the things they most want to believe.
Along with the intense and affecting drama of his stories, Shepard’s prose is incredible. He writes with the verve and improvisational brilliance of Charlie Parker blowing a twenty-minute solo. I derive as much aesthetic pleasure from Shepard’s deft manipulation of the language as from his penetrating insight into the murky mechanics of American pop-culture. Like no other writer but Conrad, Shepard condenses and ferments the very essence of place and time into something more powerful and intoxicating than reality itself. The sum of his talents and skill are at their peak in this book.
An award-winning author who first pummeled the SF scene in the mid-‘80s, Shepard has turned out several excellent books and stories in the past couple of years, including Colonel Rutherford’s Colt, Viator, and Trujillo. A Handbook of American Prayer might easily be included as some of his best work yet and is well worth the price of admission.