Saturday, December 18, 2010

"Dangerous Encounters," or Life After Kerouac: A Review of Coke Newell's "On the Road to Heaven"

As a freshman at Ricks College, I had my first extended exposure to returned LDS missionaries and their stories. As you would expect, each story had essentially the same plot, with some slight variation, depending on the storytelling talents of the RM. One of my best friends at the time could tell a pretty good missionary story, except that he occasionally slipped into Spanish during the telling, which I found obnoxious since I didn't understand the language. Little did I know that that was almost a required element of all mission stories--unless, of course, the RM was a state-sider. In that case, the state-sider usually made fun of the guys who deliberately mixed the mission language with English. Of course, when an RM had served his mission in Kansas, there wasn't much else he could do.

When you are first exposed to mission stories, they are a novelty. After a while, though, they begin to lose their draw. Again, this is mostly because they are all variations on the same theme, which I will call the "Dangerous Encounter." Here are some common examples:
  • the dangerous encounter with the armed drunk
  • the dangerous encounter with the the flirtatious teenage girl (or "snake")
  • the dangerous encounter with the parasitic worm
  • the dangerous encounter with foreign toilets, toilet "paper," and diarrhea
  • the dangerous encounter with the evangelical Christian or entrenched Catholic
  • the dangerous encounter that ends (amazingly) with a baptism
Occasionally, if you are lucky, you get to hear a mission story that is a new variation on the theme. If you are really (really) lucky, then you get to hear a wholly original theme. That's something special.

All of this, of course, is meant to introduce Coke Newell's novel, On the Road to Heaven (2007, Zarahemla Books), which tells the story of a Colorado hippie who joins the LDS Church in the late 1970s and goes on to serve a mission in Colombia. The back cover of the book describes it as an "homage to Jack Kerouac" that "traces an intimate pilgrimage to purpose across the geographic and cultural landscape of two continents in the late twentieth century." It is also a love story.

The novel's main character is Everon Kittridge "Kit" West, whose name evokes the scout Kit Carson and the romanticism we often attach to the American West. Throughout the first half of the novel, Kit roams the mountains and highways between Utah and Kansas to the tune of Beat mysticism and 1970s folk rock. He gathers around him a group of like-minded people. They take drugs, swear off meat, read books, and reject various forms of authority. Kit then meets Annie, a girl he rescues from a freak snowstorm, and they fall in love. Annie is a runaway from a Mormon family, and she hates Mormonism with every fiber of her being, so to speak. Eventually, though, both of them find their way into Mormonism and become missionaries. Kit heads off to Colombia, and Annie goes to Quebec.

Part of the draw of this novel is the unlikely journey it advertises: how does one go from being a dope-toking hippie to a clean-cut Mormon missionary? Mormon literature, of course, has no lack of conversion stories, yet few claim changes so dramatic. For readers tired of the same old conversion novels, On the Road to Heaven promises a lot.

Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to the promises. Despite its fascinating premise and occasionally amusing narrator, On the Road to Heaven struggles to captivate. One reason for this, perhaps, is that it is an "autobiographical novel" that tries to cover too much space in too few pages. Not that the book is too short; at 333 pages, the book is long enough. My issue with it, rather, is that it wants to cover every detail of Kit's experience, especially his mission experience, at the expense of narrative focus. Also, as both a first novel and an autobiographical novel (the two go hand-in-hand all too often), it reads like a mission stories marathon. Imagine being locked in a closet with a talkative returned missionary for eight straight days and you have the second half of On the Road to Heaven.

I don't want to suggest that this novel is all bad. The first half of the novel, which covers his experience as a teenage hippie, is fairly interesting. In fact, the novel is at its best when Kit, like Kerouac, is on the road or on the mountain trail:
The road was straight, narrow, and beautiful, ambling gently upward into the mirage that blends earth and sky into one amorphous melange at that altitude and temperature. We went back outside and started walking east up the road, just gazing at the desert crags. This is what we had come for. The road was good, but a new wilderness, a new patch of virgin earth, was what really drew us onward. (71)
Sadly, the accounts of Kit's many journeys are often too short and never seem fully rendered. While Kit hates the "get-there-fast" mentality of the highway, his narration shows no such disinclination. When it comes to adventures, quantity trumps quality in this novel.

Which brings us back to its second half, Kit's life after Kerouac, which reads like an entirely different novel. Gone are the poetic descriptions of the road and the offbeat characters that populate them. Gone are Kit's musing about the universe and his place in it. Gone is Kit, really. In their place: a series of "Dangerous Encounter" missionary stories that want to show how great of a missionary Kit is. The Spanish language: no trouble for Kit. Proselyting: not a problem. Baptisms: plenty. Companion troubles: nothing Kit couldn't handle. Spiritual crises: no way, Jose.

Sure, Kit has his fair share of troubles, most of which involve parasites and scantily clad girls, but these are never explored dramatically. Like the first half of the novel, it struggles under its tendency to be anecdotal, one of the downsides of autobiographical fiction, but its anecdotes are far less compelling. After a while, they even become predictable.

There is one bright side of Kit's mission experience, which is actually Kit's darkest moment. After two years of missionary work, which is some of the most difficult work out there, Kit snaps and says and does a lot of stupid things, many of which go against the values he embraced as a hippie--and should have continued to embrace as a Mormon. It is a terrifying moment for both Kit and the reader: How did he let himself get to that point? How could he lose his perspective?

Why, Kit? Why?

Unfortunately, the once-reflective Kit never spends too much time reflecting on his slip-ups and the part they play in his spiritual journey. He also makes quick restitution for them, in a sense, so we don't get to see his "soul wracked with [the] inexpressible horror" that is necessary, as Alma the Younger reminds, for true repentance (see Alma 36:14). Which is too bad. A little "inexpressible horror" never hurts a piece of fiction.

Like all roads, On the Road to Heaven is a mix of scenic views and potholes. Unfortunately, by the end of the novel, the potholes have taken their toll and you just want the journey to be done. Newell, of course, rewards you with a good final chapter and an epilogue that makes you realize that, despite its problems, the novel makes you care about characters.

In fact, I hope Newell continues the story of Kit and Annie in a sequel. Not only would I like to see Annie as a more developed character, but I would also like to see how Kit's experiences as a hippie and a missionary carry over into his twenties, possibly the most unpredictable decade in the life of a Mormon.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Small-Press Mormon Fiction

When I tell people that I study Mormon literature, I usually get one of two responses:

1. From Non-Mormons: Really? I didn't know there was such a thing.

2. From Mormons: Like what? Twilight?

In many ways, both responses are really just different ways of saying the same thing. Non-Mormons, of course, tend not to know much about the church in the first place--aside from its associations with polygamy and what they see on the evening news or HBO--so I'm not too surprised by their response. And, to be sure, I'm not that surprised by the responses of my fellow Mormons. While we generally know a great deal about our church and its doctrines, we don't generally familiarize ourselves with the creative output of its members. We know the big names, but not the little ones.

Already I know some people are going to object. "I know Mormon literature is more than Twilight," they'll say. They get the Deseret Books catalog in the mail. They've hung a Greg Olsen painting on the wall. They've read (and enjoyed!) Glenn Beck's most recent novel. So, there you have it.

Well, actually, there you don't have it.

Admittedly, what I'm about to say may sound elitist, but it's not (or, at least, it's not trying to be). In fact, I have nothing against popular Mormon culture, or any kind of popular culture, really. I believe that culture is culture, popular or otherwise, so everything is worthy of consumption and study. (For the record, I've read and written seriously about all four Twilight novels and even cried while watching the film version of Charly.) However, I tend to lament (especially on long car ride or sleepless nights) that certain aspects of Mormon creative cultural are not more widely known and studied.

One such aspect is small-press Mormon fiction (I say "small-press" to avoid the more problematic and divisive term "literary," although I readily recognize that "small-press" has its own problems). While these books are abundant indeed, few are reading them. I'd hate to have it said that Mormon fiction underwent a renaissance that no one noticed.

So, why aren't they being read? For the moment, I'm not entirely sure. Some of it, perhaps, is their lack of visibility. You won't find these books on the shelves of your local bookstores--at least not anywhere outside of Utah and Idaho. Another reason, perhaps, is content, since they tend to deal with themes and issues that don't make for light Sunday reading. Also, judging from reviews of these books on Amazon.com, readers either see them as "too Mormon" or "not Mormon enough" (which seems to boil down to the number of four-letter words in the book, although I hope I'm over-simplifying things). Maybe, after looking more into the matter, I'll have a better answer.

Of course, I'm new to these books too; in fact, it's only been over the past year that I've begun to take them seriously. It could be that most of them suck (no vampire pun intended). However, what I've read of them is promising. If you want a good place to start, check out the short story collection Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, edited by Angela Hallstrom and published by Zarahemla Books.

Also, to be a better advocate of Mormon fiction, I'm going to be reading several Mormon novels and reviewing them here. I hope you will find the reviews useful.