Reformed convict leads country to rediscover the power of prayer, only to find himself slipping down the road to demagoguery.
Plumbing a more realistic and downbeat vein of Americana than is found in most of his pulpier oeuvre, Shepard (Valentine, 2002, etc.) looks into the dry landscape of modern religion, with all its mundanity and unexpected transcendence. Wardlin Stuart is an angry cuss, a bartender who humiliates a drunk woman trying to cadge a free drink, later accidentally killing her boyfriend when he comes looking for blood. Stuart has his moment of clarity in prison, and starts writing pleadful poems that he calls prayers and adopting a method of delivering them to whatever deity is out there, which he calls “prayerstyle.” It’s an unaffected spirituality, naked in what it wants and honest about not knowing who or what is listening. But the point is that it works, and his life and attitude begin to improve. What we see of the prayers themselves are pungent little poems (“Listen, this night is a black border/around the photograph of life”), full of desire and heartbreak, and it’s actually not hard to believe that a collection of them could become a phenomenal bestseller, as happens not long after Wardlin’s release. His life then follows the standard arc of the American messiah: publicity tours, talk shows, attacks from fundamentalist Christians, and a rapidly growing and increasingly creepy fan base—not to mention a stalker who looks exactly like one of the recurring figures in one of Wardlin’s prayers. Just when Shepard is settling into the book’s groove—a dryly witty and sharply observant tone—he veers sharply off-track by sending Wardlin on a badly conceived trip south of the border, an indulgently rambling, psychedelic-inflected dark-night-of-the-soul that gets wearisome fast.
A writer who has also hinted at, instead of fully grasping, his considerable ability, chokes, rather spectacularly botching what could have been a small modern classic.