Sunday, May 27, 2012

Of Mormon Men: A Review of Douglas Thayer's "Wasatch: Mormon Stories and a Novella"


Douglas Thayer’s “The Red-Tail Hawk” is a classic Mormon story about a rebellious young man who goes hunting a few days before Christmas, gets caught in a snow storm, and loses three fingers on his left hand—a loss that becomes the young man’s shame, a trauma his fragile sense of self cannot overcome. “At school,” he tells readers,

I kept my hand hidden in my pocket, or carried my books in that hand, and I quit gym. I couldn’t stand being dressed in a gym uniform, my arms bare, couldn’t stand it in the showers, without even a towel to cover my hand, couldn’t stand the other boys seeing me. Clutching my hand I prayed at night, even out loud, promised God everything, then woke in the early morning afraid to look. (16)

God never heals the hand, and this divine silence signals the end of the young man’s innocence. It’s a fate shared with other Thayerian heroes, boys who learn all too quickly that the seemingly ordered and secure world around them can also be hostile and unforgiving—even with a loving God in heaven. Indeed, “The Red-Tail Hawk”—first published in Dialogue in 1969—is the prototypical Thayer story; in it, readers find the core thematic tensions at play throughout the whole of Thayer’s fiction.

Appropriately, then, “The Red-Tail Hawk” opens Thayer’s latest book, Wasatch: Mormon Stories anda Novella (Zarahemla Books, 2011), a kind of greatest hits album showcasing twelve of the author’s best short fiction from the past forty-two years. Nine of the works, including the masterful “Wolves,” have been previously published, while three—“Yellowstone Country,” “Apache Ledges,” and “Fathers and Sons”—are original to the book. It is Thayer’s third collection of short stories and his seventh published book.

Readers familiar with Douglas Thayer’s fiction will find nothing out-of-step in Wasatch. The collection explores the fragile psyche of Mormon men—arguably Thayer’s uber-theme—through the author’s trademark concise, understated sentences. Absent, however, are the heedless, domineering patriarchs, those stereotypical brutes—think Robert Hodgsen Van Wagoner’s “Father” in Dancing Naked—so prevalent in fiction about Mormons. Thayer’s men feel largely inadequate, wearing their prescribed gender role like an ill-fitting shirt. Or, they feel out of place and time, as if the most important part of their life has somehow slipped away from them, passed unnoticed, leaving them disoriented and nostalgic for the person they once had been.

This mixture of fragility, loss, disorientation, and nostalgia manifests itself differently in each story and in each character. For some, like the young man’s father in “The Red-Tail Hawk” or the ironically-named Bliss in “The Locker Room,” it cankers into frustration and complex bursts of violence. For others, like Carl in “The Gold Mine,” it strips away meaning, essentially leaving him without a language to speak. Thayer’s young men are particularly susceptible to this fragility. Raised with high expectations, and still believing in heroes and miracles, these boys are worn raw by reality.

In “Carterville,” for example, one of the best stories in the collection, a boy aspires to catch a German brown trout large enough to win a local prize awarded for the biggest catch of the season. Throughout the story, he’s diligent, but unsuccessful until the day he hooks what he’s certain is “the biggest German brown trout I’d ever seen in my whole life.” Reeling it in, dreaming of the prize money and the beauty of the fish, he’s “full of joy, almost crying” until he sees “dimly in the half-light” the grotesque face of a carp, “the big unblinking eyes, the pig mouth, the sickly yellowness that was not gold.” The revelation is painful, leaving him with a kind of devastating wisdom he doesn’t quite understand:

I didn’t kill the carp, as I should have, leaving him to rot on the bank as a warning to other fishermen about the folly of hope and desire. I took the hook out of his mouth and eased him back into the Moss Hole because that seemed the way thing must be, even in Carterville. (64)  

Moments like these are frequent in Wasatch. Only occasionally do Thayer’s character’s recapture the past, accept its past-ness, and move on. These characters, like Philip in “Yellowstone Country” and the narrator of “Apache Ledges,” alone seem adjusted by story’s end. Interestingly, in both instances, the moving on involves the setting aside of a male-centered, fantasy-driven way-of-life for a life centered on companionship with a woman, usually a wife. For this reason, perhaps, women do not play a large role in this collection; for Thayer, their presence seems to offer too much stability and practical wisdom—and too little conflict.

Like any greatest hits album, Wasatch is neither Thayer’s best work nor his most innovative. It is, however, predictably good because Thayer’s work has consistently been that way. While not every story excels as “Wolves,” “Carterville,” “Yellowstone Country,” and “The Locker Room” do—“The Gold Mine” and “Ice Fishing,” for example, bored me—the collection is still a worthy addition to Mormon literature. If it has any weakness, though, it is the novella “Dolf,” a historical adventure about a New England student-turned-fur trapper on the run from a band of Blackfoot Indians. Lacking Mormon elements, and drawing upon outmoded themes and motifs that sit uneasily in post-colonial times, the novella seems out of place in an otherwise thoughtful, contemporary work.

Minor weaknesses aside, Wasatch proves that Douglas Thayer—eighty-three years old and counting—remains a vibrant, relevant force in Mormon fiction. Indeed, I recently had the opportunity to attend a reading where Thayer read and spoke about “Wolves,” one of his finest stories. Hearing him speak about his work, listening to his insights, left me little reason to doubt why he enjoys the reputation that he does. He is twentieth-century Mormonism’s greatest literary chronicler, and the Mormon people--particularly the men he so earnestly and honestly portrays--are better because of him. 

NOTE: I received a review copy of Wasatch from its publisher, Zarahemla Books.

3 comments:

  1. I found "Wolves" to be very disturbing, almost too much so. It takes place not merely in the protagonist's head but in the world of human evil. I wonder if you could expand your thoughts on this remarkable story.

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  2. Very curious to eventually read some Thayer. I've tried a couple of times with The Treehouse and Hooligan, but kept getting sidetracked and the novels hadn't had a strong enough hook to bring me back yet. But all I hear is good, so I mean to eventually plow through some of his stuff and finally get an opinion formed.

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  3. R.W.: I think "Wolves" operates on a variety of levels: as a story about home, community, evil, survival, innocence, etc. When I heard Thayer read it, he suggested that it's a story about love overcoming the effects of evil. I agree with that, but I'm disturbed by the final paragraph of the story, which suggests that recovery from trauma and evil isn't something that love, family, community, and oatmeal cookies can cure. It think the story is also about the sticking power of trauma, the way acts of evil linger despite out attempts to heal. It is a disturbing story, as is "The Locker Room," which I find more disturbing in many ways. Both touch on very similar conflicts and themes.

    Mahonri: I'd recommend starting with "The Conversion of Jeff Williams," which I think is Thayer's most accessible and contemporary work--and possibly his best work overall (if it isn't "The Tree House"). "Hooligans" has it's moments, but it really is not his best work. "The Tree House" is excellent, but it has a slow start. "Summer Fire" is also worth reading, although some readers are put off by the self-righteous narrator. If you haven't yet read the short stories "Wolves" and "The Locker Room," I strongly recommend them.

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