(Thunder's Mouth Press, $22.00, 263 pages, hardcover; published in September 2004.)
Many of Lucius Shepard's recent storiesdeal with masculinity, how masculinity is performed in different settings and cultures, and what that means for men, women, and society. His novel A Handbook of American Prayer continues to explore such themes and concerns, this time through the travails of Wardlin Stuart, a violent brawler and predatory womanizer.
After accidentally murdering a jealous boyfriend, Warldin winds up in jail, where he develops prayerstyle, a secular method of prayer that seems to bend reality to the supplicant's wishes. Wardlin assembles his prayers into a book called A Handbook of American Prayer. Following the book's publication, a much mellower Wardlin is granted parole, and he becomes a media darling and the unwitting founder of a new spiritual movement that rejects God and religion as irrelevant -- for which the Christian Right brands Wardlin a tool of the devil.
The reformed Wardlin claims to want nothing more than quiet domesticity with the woman he loves, yet he is a magnet for violence, which feeds a part of himself that he cannot abandon fully.
In his prayers Wardlin evokes the metaphorical image of the Lord of Loneliness, and soon a mysterious figure reminiscent of Wardlin's creation starts haunting the edges of Wardlin's life. Is it a fanatical Wardlinite, the true Lord of Loneliness, or Wardlin's prayers made flesh?
The narrative incorporates a few of Wardlin's poetic prayers, and it's fortunate that it's only a few. Shepard's rambling and shapeless verse -- this remarkable novel's only weakness -- fails to communicate the vivid power attributed to prayerstyle.
Shepard's A Handbook of American Prayer is a testosterone-fuelled yet rawly introspective exploration of the confluence of masculinity, celebrity, and spirituality in contemporary US culture. Like its protagonist, it is roguishly charming -- a fascinating collision of seeming contradictions.
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© Claude Lalumière 31 December 2004, 23 April 2005