Last April I presented a paper at the AML annual meeting that criticized missionary fiction for its tendency to depict non-American settings as hostile and dangerous. The paper (which will be published—slightly revised—in the next issue of Dialogue) especially took aim at the way American characters monopolize the points-of-view of these works—often at the expense of non-American characters, who frequently come off as flat or underdeveloped. Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven was my chief whipping boy. It was one of the first Mormon novels I reviewed on this blog, but not a work I particularly cared for. Basically, its shallow handling of Colombian characters bothered me, and my opinion of it hasn’t changed in a year and a half.
S. P. Bailey’s Millstone City, another work of missionary fiction, was published a few months after the annual meeting by Zarahemla Books, the same publisher as On the Road to Heaven. Set in Recife, Brazil, the novel would have fit perfectly within my discussion of the transnational Mormon experience in Mormon literature except that, unlike On the Road to Heave, Millstone City incorporates the perspectives of several non-American characters, most of whom are not even Mormon. The result is a patchwork narrative that widens the typically myopic scope of the mission story by ambitiously taking on subplots about Brazilian police officers, crime lords, and a fading beauty-turned-cat-lady named Luz de Sá. If Millstone City were a Mormon film, it would be Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace set to Samba music.
I make this comparison to Dutcher’s film deliberately. Both Millstone City and States of Grace are about imperiled missionaries, their even more imperiled converts, and the grace that ultimately redeems them before God and the reader. Both works also take risks in their grittier visions of the world, yet they shortchange these risks with denouements that ultimately fail to deliver. States of Grace, for example, ends with a forced sequence where grace is spooned out in the form of a baby Jesus who gets passed around a circle of characters. The ending of Millstone City is less contrived—in fact, it could have been quite good if the narrative had made more of an effort to reinforce it thematically.
I’d say more, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers.
In its current form, though, Millstone City reads like an early draft in need of a rewrite. Which is unfortunate since this novel about two missionaries on the run from Brazilian gangsters has a lot going for it. Smart-aleck characters, a fast-paced narrative, and an interesting, unfamiliar setting make it an entertaining read. As a thriller with roots in pulp fiction and film noir, it also has a pleasant retro-classic vibe to it that contributes to its charm. But Bailey is no Mormon Raymond Chandler. (Not yet, at least.) His characters usually hit the right notes—that mix of cynicism and street-wise smarm that makes you unsure whether to like or loathe them—but the overall package is too rough around the edges even for the rough-and-tumble genre it’s trying to emulate.
Lacking, perhaps, are the novel’s two missionaries, Elder Carson and Elder Nordgren. Like many companionships in mission fiction, they are supposed to be a pairing of the obedient (Carson) with the disobedient (Nordgren). But you would never know it unless they told you since they seem to have sprung from the same mold—which is neither hot nor cold, but rather lukewarm. As the narrator of most of the novel, Elder Carson is slightly more fleshed out as an individual than the forgettable Elder Norgren, but not enough to make him stand among the more memorable missionary characters of Mormon fiction. Yes, he’s funny, occasionally edgy, and even worthy of the reader’s sympathy, but not in any way we haven’t seen in God’s Army or The Best Two Years.
Another problem is the novel’s title, which alludes to the notion expressed in Matthew 18:6 that it is better for someone to hang a millstone around his neck and be “drowned in the depth of the sea” than to offend the “little ones” who believe in Christ. Bailey works this scripture into his story directly when the Elbow, a crime boss who deals in the harvesting and selling the children’s organs on the black market, cites it glibly as grounds for his own condemnation. He also ironizes it with a message of grace and forgiveness at the ending of the novel, yet he does so without returning to the millstone motif and acknowledging the irony. For me, this failure to return to the motif that receives so much emphasis in the title smothers the ironic tension at play in the novel’s final two chapters and makes them less impactful. Put simply, Millstone City needed more millstones.
To be fair to Bailey, I ought to mention that I think Millstone City is a step up from the missionary stories I criticized in my April AML presentation. While it is still essentially a novel about a pair of white kids who have to endure the perils of a foreign land before they can safely return with honor to the States, it takes steps to portray the foreign land as a real place where real people live out their days. The character of Luz de Sá, the Brazilian cat-lady, is perhaps the novel’s salvation. Not a cop, gangster, or missionary, Luz is the story’s true outsider, the only character whose actions in the novel are wholly motivated by personal choice rather than duty to authority (or money). For me, this makes her more sympathetic, more tragic, and more heroic than the other characters. Mormon missionary stories need more characters like Luz.
And while I’m being fair, I should say that I enjoyed Millstone City--including its cover--even as I regretted its many problems. Fortunately, S. P. Bailey is still a young writer, and Millstone City is evidence enough that he has the potential to be a leader in the genre of Mormon pulp thrillers. Maybe next time he’ll deliver a gritty tour-de-force of back-alley Mormonism that really leaves us dead in our tracks.
Note: I received a complimentary review copy of Millstone City from its publisher.