Friday, April 22, 2011

Shocking Satire: A Review of A. Allworth's "Saints in the Latter Days"

Satire is tricky. Very few people pull it off well. Those who do—Jonathan Swift, Stephen Colbert—are geniuses. Those who don’t usually end up embarrassing themselves.

Take the chaps at Halestorm—the guys who spent the last decade cranking out low-budget Mormon comedies like The Single’s Ward, The Home Teachers, Church Ball, and The Single’s 2nd Ward. In many ways, they had it right: we Mormons need satire.

But then, in the execution, they often got it wrong. Like 8 times out of 10.

Remember, for instance, the scene from The Home Teachers—one of the few not shamelessly lifted from Tommy Boy or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—when the home teachers get discouraged and sing Michael McLean’s “You’re Not Alone”? That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never have back. Watching it, I felt embarrassed for them.

So, all satire is tricky. Especially really good Mormon satire.

I bring this up because I recently finished reading the enigmatic A. Allworth’s satiric Mormon novel Saints in the Latter Days, which has recently been published as an ebook and made available on Amazon and wackymormonbook.com.

Here’s a brief summary. Conflict, controversy, intrigue, and eco-terrorism ensue when philanthropist and eco-activist Abel Rosenberg is found dead, tied to a dogwood tree and suffocated on a baby-back rib. Since the philanthropist was also the owner of a prime piece of much-coveted Virginia property, his death—an obvious result of foul play—triggers a tenacious land-grab. Immediately, three parties step into the ring: Utah Senator P. Alma Pedersen, who wants to use the land to dump his state’s surplus of dirty diapers; N. Dellmer Christensen, a Mormon bishop and president of High Times Tobacco Company, who wants it for tobacco cultivation; and the Virginia Land Trust, an environmentalist group that wants to preserve the land from development.

Each group goes to great lengths to prevent their rivals from getting the land. Senator Pedersen, for example, enlists two local missionaries—Elder Higbee and Elder Lee—to masquerade as eco-terrorists and sabotage High Times equipment. Such work suits them: before their missions, Higbee and Lee (both named, incidentally, after the perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre) were less than ideal Mormon boys.

Obviously, Saints in the Latter Days is an irreverent romp through Mormon culture. Nothing is sacred in this novel. Rare is the page that does not carry some form of sacrilege and blasphemy. There’s no need to ask: this book will offend you.

Here’s the deal. Saints in the Latter Days is the kind of book that requires a certain kind of audience. If you are like me—if you're relatively puritanical and like the object of satire to be recognizable in the text—then Saints in the Latter Days is not for you. Frequently, for example, Allworth’s Mormons are so over-the-top “unrighteous” and “inappropriate” that they cease to say anything meaningful about Mormonism. What are you supposed to do, after all, with a Utah senator who’s ridiculously obsessed with pornography and sees polygamy as a way of fathering a male heir? Sure, there’s a commentary on patriarchy somewhere in there, but not a kind of patriarchy that I really see operative in the church today. Depictions of the church, likewise, are equally over-the-top. For example, early in the novel, BYU (and really Mormonism in general) is characterized as an uber-conservative police state that disciplines and excommunicates at the drop of a hat. It’s a liberal’s nightmare three steps away from Nazi Germany.

Now, I’m not saying the church isn’t conservative, because it is. But I am saying this: the exaggerations you find in Saints in the Latter Days are not exaggerations of the church as it really is, but rather exaggerations of stereotypical perceptions of the church. There isn’t, in other words, a whole lot of nuance in Allworth’s satire. When I read this book, I don’t feel like I’m looking at the church as if through a well-polished funhouse mirror. Rather, I feel like I’m looking at a quickly-drawn amusement park caricature: I see the resemblance, but only because I’m looking for it.

That said, Saints in the Latter Days is not without merit. Allworth has come up with an imaginative cast of characters, for example, who manage to keep the novel interesting. And, while Allworth’s irony-laden prose is nothing special, it’s also not bad. Occasionally, it even provides a laugh or two, usually when Elders Higbee and Lee take the stage, and the ending doesn't suck. Sadly, though, too much in the novel seeks to shock rather than to satirize. After a while, the perversity begins to grate on you.

So I didn’t like Saints in the Latter Days and I’m not going to recommend it to my friends and readers. Like D. Michael Martindale’s Brother Brigham, it’s the kind of Mormon novel that comes into your house, takes a leak on the carpet, and leaves without cleaning up the mess.

Of course, I’m not going to say that Saints in the Latter Days is not without an audience. Just because I didn’t like anything about the novel doesn’t mean that you won’t. Some people, whose worldviews and opinions differ from mine, would enjoy this sort of book and find Allworth’s twisted brand of humor funny. I imagine it’s the kind of book Jack Mormons and apostates will enjoy with a glass of wine and a cigarette.

If nothing else, I hope A. Allworth takes that (and the comment about the carpet) as a compliment.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of Saints in the Latter Days from the author. A. Allworth is a writer from Georgia. Saints in the Latter Days is her first novel.

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