Sunday, January 30, 2011

Backsliding in the Latter Daze: Reviews of Levi Peterson's "The Backslider" and Jack Harrell's "Vernal Promises"

Perfection isn't something that's possible in this life, but a lot of Mormons think they have to be. At least, that's the message of two of the novels I've read recently: Levi Peterson's The Backslider (Signature, 1986) and Jack Harrell's Vernal Promises (Signature, 2003). Both novels deal with characters who have given up on trying to be perfect since they keep falling short. In both instances, they see salvation as a matter of good works rather than grace. They think that their only hope of throwing off the "natural man," to borrow King Benjamin's term, is to always do everything right. Consequently, they have no use for a Savior.

The Backslider is probably the most notorious Mormon novel ever written--even though most Latter-day Saints have never heard of it. It's about a cowboy in southern Utah named Frank Windham who believes in God, but wants nothing to do with him. For the first half of the novel, he's doing everything he can to hide from God and run away from Jesus. Then, when his brother castrates himself (yeah...this is a weird novel, folks), he turns around and tries to live the gospel with exactness. The only problem is, Frank thinks he's eternally damned if he slips up even once. He begins to keep a tally of his sins, and he eventually resorts to punishing his body with a vegetable grater, among other things, rather than repenting and accepting the grace of God.

Vernal Promises, in many ways, is a less irreverent version of The Backslider. It's the story of dazed and confused Jacob Israel Dennison, another backsliding Mormon, who has a hard time saying no to drugs (and beer). Like Frank, he's convinced that he's got to save himself through his deeds alone, that he's not worthy of grace. After his wife miscarries, he returns to church and tries to live right, but he gets frustrated and soon goes back to his old ways. Most of the novel is lost in the fog of Jacob's drug habit--he's gets high in nearly every chapter, including an intense chapter that involves LSD, meth, homemade fajitas, and a gun--but it does have some profound moments of clarity.

Of the two novels, The Backslider is the better-written, although its characters and situations are often (and intentionally) exaggerated and sensationalized--which is actually part of its charm. Vernal Promises, despite its strong start, becomes less polished as it progresses. By the end of the book, in fact, the story becomes either too melodramatic or sentimental for my tastes. I also think it fails to take advantage of the dramatic potential of some of its later plot developments. Still, its characters are interesting enough to make you want to keep reading. Jacob's wife, Pam, is possibly the most real character in the novel.

Of course, I should probably say that I'm hesitant to recommend either novel, although both have their merits. The Backslider, like I said, is a pretty notorious Mormon novel. Frank Windham embraces the sinful life, and Peterson has no qualms about depicting it. So, obviously, The Backslider is not for everyone. Vernal Promises, on the other hand, is more discreet in its depiction of sin, although Harrell's descriptions of drug abuse will probably get you high just from reading them. Of course, that's not why I would hesitate to recommend Vernal Promises. Honestly, if you're only going to read one Mormon novel this year, there are better Mormon novels out there. (However, if you're going to read three or four...)

To their credit, though, both novels get you thinking deeply about the atonement of Jesus Christ. All to often, as Mormons, we worry about being perfect. We look at our own failures, compare them to the apparent successes of others, and chastise ourselves for not being good enough. Like Frank, we keep tallies of our failings and despair when we slip up or fall short of our unrealistic expectations. Worse, we frequently end up punishing ourselves--often mentally--when, really, it's not our job to do that. Or, like Pam in Vernal Promises, we repent of past transgressions, but refuse to believe, deep down, that Christ can remove the stains of sin. Like her, we wonder "Why couldn't there be a world where people just stayed clean forever?" not realizing that a world like that could never lead us to exaltation (249).

One of the most meaningful scenes in Vernal Promises occurs near the end of the novel. Jacob has slipped up again, so he drives off into the desert to end his life as a kind of sacrifice for his own sins. Of course, his bishop catches up with him, although not until after Jacob has seriously injured himself. On the way to the hospital, as Jacobs goes in and out of consciousness, the bishop confesses to his own failings as a father and to the part he played in his son's loss of faith. His point is that no one, no matter how perfect they seem to be, is exempt from the struggles of mortal life. "Everyone's got a mess to deal with," the bishop tells Jacob. "Your no different" (328).

Which is true. It's my bet that all the perfect-seeming people at church each have problems I'd rather not deal with. As Jack Harrell, author of Vernal Promises, recently pointed out on Dawning of a Brighter Day, Mormons generally try to put their best faces forward. These are the public faces that we see "at the ward meetinghouse, on the home or visiting teaching visit, or in the family when we believe others are watching." While our intentions are mostly good for putting these faces on, they often work to cover up the very real fact that we are humans with more problems in our basements than food storage. Sadly, this gap between our public and private selves can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. If anything, The Backslider and Vernal Promises expose the dangers of believing this gap doesn't exist.

More importantly, though, these novel remind us that Christ lived a perfect life so that we don't have to--which should be good news for all of us, whether we believe it or not.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Douglas Thayer's "The Tree House": A Good Way to Spend Ten Bucks

As my review of Coke Newell's On the Road to Heaven suggested, a lot Mormon missionary fiction is pretty lousy. A few years ago, in fact, one Mormon writer counseled aspiring Mormon writers to lay off the missionary stories since no one is going to be interested in their mission stories unless a) someone gets murdered, or b) they involve polygamy (since "polygamy will always be more interesting that your mission stories").

Fortunately, there are exceptions to this rule. Douglas Thayer's recent novel The Tree House (Zarahemla Books, 2009) is one of the best Mormon novels ever written--and probably the best missionary novel out there. Everything, it seems, that On the Road to Heaven does wrong, The Tree House does right. That's probably because Thayer is a well-respected veteran of Mormon fiction. He knows what he's doing with words.

Of course, The Tree House is not just about missionary work--and even when it's about missionary work, it's not really about missionary work. The novel begins in Provo in 1945, a few months before World War II ends; its main character, Harris Thatcher, is fifteen-years-old, idealistic, and relatively carefree. He dreams of growing up, getting drafted, fighting the Germans or Japanese (if the war doesn't end too soon), serving a mission, and getting married in the temple. He's poor, but he has the best of everything money can't buy: the best father, a great best friend, a loyal dog.

Life eventually slaps Harris in the face. His father dies on the day Japan surrenders, and hard times keep coming. In interviews, Thayer has stated that he is interested in writing about righteous Mormons, or mostly righteous Mormons, whose faith gets tested to the extreme. For example, in one of Thayer's best short stories, "Wolves," a young man like Harris seeks adventure by riding the rails during the Great Depression; instead of finding adventure, though, he is tortured and held captive by a sadistic man who preys on hobos. The young man survives the experience, but he's irrevocably changed and bruised on the far side of innocence.

Thematically, The Tree House is very similar to "Wolves." Harris eventually leaves Provo to serve a mission in post-War Germany. There, he learns about the reality of war and its devastating effect on those who experience it. While serving his mission, the Korean War breaks out, so as soon as he returns home, he is drafted into the Army. While in Korea, Harris learns about war first hand, and his faith is all but destroyed.

Of course, Thayer's not interested--as far as I can tell--in writing stories about the loss of faith, although he's certainly not against taking his characters to the outer limits of their faith. He's also not interested in telling stories that wrap things up in a nice, uplifting package. The Tree House asks a lot of questions that don't always have clear and easy answers--about the nature of faith, for instance, or the gaps that often exist between the abstractions of religious belief and the hard realities of the material world. It's a book that makes you think about the depths of your own beliefs. Likely, you will never experience as much tragedy as Harris, but his story gets you wondering how you would react to tragedy if you came face to face with it.

The Tree House is not about polygamy, which means that it is a Mormon novel that is not being widely read. Still, despite its noticeable lack of domineering patriarchs and child-brides, its worth checking out. The first few chapters are a little slow, which should come as no surprise since they take place in Provo, but the book quickly becomes hard to put down. The chapters that take place in Germany and Korea are especially good and thought-provoking. All too often, novels like this one (and Thayer's previous novel, The Conversion of Jeff Williams) are overlooked, so give it a chance. You probably won't find it in your local library, unless you live in Utah, so you'll probably have to buy it.

That said, there are worse ways to spend $10.00.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Best and Worst Reads of 2010

It's a new year, so I again need to sum up my reading experience of the past year. In 2010, I read 54 full length works. Included in the count are novels, short story collections, non-fiction books, plays, and screenplays.

Although I have included them in the count, some books are texts that I have read before. I have not considered them for my best and worst list since they are already among my favorites and have been numbered on lists past.

Here are my lists. I present them with no justification. If you would like to argue for or against any of them, please feel free to do so in the comments section. I doubt this will happen, of course, but the option remains open.

Five Best Fiction Books:
1. Ethan Frome--Edith Wharton
2. Long After Dark--Todd Robert Petersen
3. Mrs. Dalloway--Virginia Woolf
4. Tinkers--Paul Harding
5. Song of Solomon--Toni Morrison

Five Best Non-Fiction Books:
1. Blue Latitudes--Tony Horwitz
2. The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1, 1832-1839
3. Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory--Edward J. Larson
4. A Short History of Nearly Everything--Bill Bryson
5. Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood--Douglas Thayer

Five Worst Books:
1. March--Geraldine Brooks
2. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter--Seth Grahame-Smith
3. Breaking Dawn--Stephenie Meyer
4. The Guinea Pig Diaries--A. J. Jacobs
5. Of Mice and Men--John Steinbeck