Lucius Shepard,
A Handbook of American Prayer
(Thunder's Mouth, 2004)

Wardlin Stuart is convicted of manslaughter after cracking a head with a bottle in a bar. In prison, a near-fatal knife attack turns him to prayer for protection from possible future violence, and it seems to work. He begins to develop a system. Prayers should be written out with sincerity, repeated frequently and ask only for small things. Another inmate learns Stuart may have a strange talent and buys a prayer he hopes will lead to reconciliation with his sister. A reunion follows. Soon it's clear that most of those who commission Stuart, or follow his method with prayers of their own, get what they ask for. But is it because something supernatural happens or because they have begun to concentrate with a positive attitude on small, attainable goals?

Shepard's fantasy elements are often ambiguous. A couple of dark, eerie characters appear as we get further into the story. They may have been created by Stuart's prayers, or they may just be people with strange traits and agendas. We never get a definitive answer. Some readers will be unhappy without clarity. I believe the uncertainty is a conscious technique. It increases the feeling of unease and suggests life itself is mysterious and unpredictable.

When Stuart turns back to his own needs he composes prayers he hopes will lead to a relationship with a woman. Soon he is corresponding with Theresa and courtship leads to a marriage that helps him get out on parole. His personal prayers continue to be answered and the prayers he writes for others are, too. Eventually his system leads to the book of prayers referred to in the title of the novel.

Through all of this Stuart avoids claiming any religious basis for his system, but he soon runs afoul of evangelists who see him as a threat to their domains. Televangelist Monroe Treat becomes a bitter and dangerous enemy and the story takes on many of the characteristics of a crime novel.

Along the way Shepard has fun with TV's religious salesmen, clearly viewing them as charlatans who are out for money and power. Since Stuart has written a book, there's an opportunity to satirize critics as well (surely not me). At one point Theresa argues with Stuart, telling him he doesn't quite sound like that Princeton pundit, " you're poking a finger up your butt when you talk."

I admire Shepard's writing. Words are chosen with the care and originality Bach used on the notes of a fugue. I skimmed two pages at random to find this on the second, "The curdled sky above Nogales, clouds of pollution sealing off the stars, was a muddy orange, eddying sluggishly like unwholesome sea life." With Shepard you could forget the characters and plot and read just for the pleasure of encountering unusual images.

That's more important this time because the novel isn't as fascinating as Shepard's other recent work. I miss the obsessed characters and the plot is flawed. Stuart's success doesn't quite ring true, nor does his fight with semi-organized religion. But it's recommended nonetheless because there is something striking or clever on every page. Below par novels from this author are better than 95 percent of the competition.

by Ron Bierman
24 September 2005

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