Monday, March 21, 2011

"Exposed and Dangerous Regions": A Review of Jack Harrell's "A Sense of Order and Other Stories"

Rexburg is an underutilized setting in Mormon literature. As an undergraduate at Ricks College/BYU-Idaho, I spent two and a half academic years within its city limits. It and its surrounding landscape were like nothing I had ever experienced before. Few people, I think, know what to expect when they visit.

Once, for example, I took a charter van from Salt Lake to Rexburg. Christmas break was nearly over and I was heading back to school. Travelling with me were an identical mother and daughter pair, some kid who never talked, and (get this) a middle-aged Romanian with a newfangled mp3 player.

Along the way it came out that the daughter was beginning her freshman year that winter semester. She had never been to Rexburg before. I think she was from California.

We arrived in Rexburg around dusk, and it was immediately clear that the Christmas season had not been kind to Rexburg. Everything was encased in ice or buried in snow. As we got off the freeway, the Hideaway Tavern to our right seemed to glow blue. It was as if we had somehow found our way into the dreary scene from the most dismal snow-globe ever made. As we wound our way to the Manwaring Center parking lot, it was clear that the daughter was experiencing…mixed feelings.

"It's so bleak," she said.

Indeed it was.

Another time, my FHE group was having an activity off campus in the home of our bishop. Our High Council representative, an old Idaho man with beady eyes and quiet ways, was given the task of driving us there. Our bishop lived only a few minutes away. We piled into the backseat of his car and started chatting. No one paid much attention to where we were going. The High Councilor said nothing. We barreled down the dark Idaho back road with nothing but the headlights to guide us. No house lights. No streetlights. Nothing. We were the only car on the road.

Twenty minutes later, the car ride had lasted fifteen minutes longer than it was supposed to, and I was freaked out. Every time I looked in the rear view mirror, I saw the stern American Gothic face of the High Councilor looking right back at me--or, at least, he seemed to be looking back at me. Had he stopped the car right there and pulled a shotgun out of the trunk, I would not have been surprised. It was the perfect setting to go Misfit on a carload of college freshmen.

Of course, nothing of that sort happened. It turned out that he had just misunderstood directions. He thought the activity was at his house, not the bishops. An easy mistake for an old guy to make. We all laughed it off.

I admit, though, that dark, isolated landscape, which seemed vast (and bleak) even at nighttime, spooked me. Rexburg can be a strange place. Indeed, it wasn't until much later, when I came upon this passage from Washington Irving's The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837), that I understood why that place, of all places, seemed so different, so strange, and so captivating:

Captain Bonneville sent out four men, to range the country through which he would have to pass, and endeavor to get some information concerning him; for his route lay across the great Snake River plain, which spreads itself out like an Arabian desert, and on which a cavalcade could be descried at a great distance. The scouts soon returned, having proceeded no further than the edge of the plain, pretending that their horses were lame; but it was evident they had feared to venture, with so small a force, into these exposed and dangerous regions.

When Bonneville's scouts played the "lame horse" card, they had good reason. As anyone who has ever stood alone in the middle of the lava plain on the outskirts of Rexburg knows, those "exposed and dangerous regions" can leave you feeling pretty vulnerable. It's just you, the rocky ground beneath your feet, and a really (really) big sky.

If you want to feel weight of God's gaze upon you, take 33 west out of Rexburg, past the (inelegantly-named) Beaver Dick Park and the (inaccurately-named) Menan Buttes, and drive until you feel like you've found the proverbial "middle-of-nowhere." Once you get there, get out of your car. You'll see what I mean.

The landscape of southeast Idaho is something else. Terrifying. Sublime. Mystical. Bizarre.

In my opinion, it’s what makes Rexberg infinitely more interesting than Provo.

And, in many ways, it is also what makes Jack Harrell's latest contribution to the Mormon literary canon, A Sense of Order and Other Stories (Signature Books, 2010), so good. Indeed, although Rexburg and southeast Idaho are not the exclusive settings for this collection of sixteen stories, their presence sets the mood for the entire work. Central to A Sense of Order, after all, is the theme of the fallen world—although Harrell's fallen world hasn't yet gone to seed: it's no Great and Spacious Building, Tower of Babel, or Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather, it is, as the title of one story suggests, a “Lone and Dreary World"--still raw with memories of Eden. There, the lines between heaven, hell, and Earth are very thin. It's can be a rough and alienating place.

A lot like southeast Idaho.

In his introduction to A Sense of Order, Professor Robert Bird compares the collection to a triumvirate of American Romantics--Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe--and I think the comparison is an appropriate one. Harrell's stories, after all, aren't "realistic" in the way that the stories of, say, Todd Robert Petersen or Douglas Thayer are. For instance, in the book's first story, "Tregan's Mettle," a young man from Rexburg picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be Jesus in hippy clothes. In another story, "Jerome and the Ends of the Universe," another young man leases an empty supermarket and builds a giant model of the solar system. In both stories, the predictability of the material world is set aside for the "certain latitude" that Hawthorne grants the Romance in his preface to The House of Seven Gables. Like Hawthorne, Harrell presents his readers with a "work of art" that offers "truth under circumstances [...] of the writer's own choosing or creation."

So, in a way, there's no real order in A Sense of Order: a sense of it is all you're ever going to get. Like the Romantics of the nineteenth century—and the magical realists of today—Harrell offers a view of the world on his own terms, and stories like "The Trestle"--a Serling-esque tale of choice and consequence--make you glad he does. While Harrell’s prose isn't flawless, his stories stick with you throughout your days and nights.

If you are like me, you won't be able to get them out of your head.

Of course, there are some stories in the collection that don't take a "certain latitude" with staid perceptions of reality. In fact, some of the best writing in the collection comes from realistic vignettes that Harrell scatters throughout the book. In these short pieces, Harrell demonstrates his skill at being what we Mormons might call a "wise steward" of his words. For example, in the best of the vignettes, "Do Not Mix with Bleach," Harrell captures the loneliness of his main character in a simple 18 word sentence: "He loved her with a young love that strikes him now as having been a kind of despair" (153).

In my opinion, however, the best stories in the collection are those that abide by Harrell’s house rules. For instance, “Calling and Election,” the final story in the book, draws upon the conventions of the Faust legend and Hawthornian morality tales to tell the story of a Seminary teacher, Jerry, whose internal struggles with Satan become disturbingly external when he comes in contact with a mysterious man named Brother Lucy. At times, the story seems undeniably grounded in reality, while at other times it is entirely unclear whether what is happening is real or something more akin to Young Goodman Brown’s dream. It is a disturbing tale with unsettling implications for sincere followers of Christ. More than any other story in A Sense of Order, it reflects the "exposed and dangerous regions" of the human soul:

Jerry reached for Brother Lucy's hand and in a moment he landed on his back, prostrate in the water, thrashing and gasping in a panic as Brother Lucy held him under, his knee on Jerry's chest, shoving Jerry deeper and deeper under the current. The pain in his head, like a black cloud of devils, disoriented him. Then, just as quickly as he had pushed him under, Brother Lucy puled Jerry to his feet and shouted, "Are you giving up? If you're going to give up, spare us all and do it now" (211-212).

Most stories in A Sense of Order, of course, are not as intense as "Calling and Election," although a majority of them do tend to unsettle more than they reassure. One notable exception, perhaps, is "A Prophet's Story," an incredibly funny tale about what happens when a LDS Church president dons a light blue tracksuit and a fake beard to buy a garden hose and Almond Joy at a Walmart in a poorer area of west Salt Lake. While the premise might strike some as disrespectful and inappropriate, the story doesn't really come off that way. In fact, what makes A Sense of Order--for me--an important work of Mormon literature is in the way it captures (in order to subvert) the simple, innocent voice of Mormon didactic fiction. As I read these stories, I recognized something in them that reminded me of the stories I would read in the New Era when I was a teenager. Like those stories--and Hawthorne's--Harrell's stories have a moral to them, even though the moral is often clouded over by ambiguity. In many ways, I like to think of A Sense of Order as a kind of post-Home Literature collection of New Era stories that have grown up and experienced more of the Lone and Dreary World. In them, things aren't as clear cut as they used to be, and there are no easy answers, but God's plan remains a guiding light.

Is it perfect? No. For example, the well-intentioned "Godsight," about a man who is able to see people the way God sees them, strikes me as being a little too emotionally forced. Others, like "Tregan's Mettle," are good, despite some clunky writing ("Some said the king the Mormon pioneers had in mind was Jesus Christ, who'd visited Joseph Smith and told him to start a new Church" [4]). Still, in my opinion, stories like "A Sense of Order," "Grandma Ruckman's Dream," "The Trestle," "Jerome and the Ends of the Universe," "A Prophet's Story," and "Calling and Election" make up for any apparent flaws in this collection.

A Sense of Order, after all, is fiction that takes us to the edge of the plain of the Lone and Dreary World, that "exposed and dangerous region" between us and something we hope will be infinitely better.

My recommendation is this: Don't be like Bonneville's scouts and play the "lame horse" card. Open the book and step out onto the plain.

1 comment:

  1. .

    I hope you'll forgive me for not finishing your review until I've finished my own. Up front though, I must thank you for introducing me to an Irving book I had completely missed.

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