Monday, August 20, 2012

I Gotta Have More Millstones: A Review of S. P. Bailey's "Millstone City"


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.


5 comments:

  1. This book has many problems.

    For example, the first chapter starts in the first peson point-of-view, and then the second chapter shifts to an all knowing narrator, who can read into the minds of others. Of course, an author can shift a point-of-view, but usually this is done with multiple first person narrators, such as Faulkner in As I Lay Dying. Shifting from a first person, inside the head of one person, then going to a narrotor who can see inside the heads of all characters, could be handled by a skilled author, with great care, but Bailey is not that. All beginning writing manuals warn against this grave mistake, but Bailey missed those chapters, one can only presume.

    Another example: the book is written in the present tense, which is meant to bring immediacy to the action, but unfortunately the author frequently uses the past tense, while we are still in the present. He most frequently does this while a character is thinking about the past, and the author then shitts to the present action, but forgets to change the tenses. It comes across as exceedingly sloopy.

    Another example: the author clearly only understands Brazil from a limited perspective. This is shown throughout the book, but he illustrates this when the book says that "opa" means "hi." Sorry, but this is not true. "Oi" means "hi." But the dilemma the author clearly had was that "Oi" is a telephone company in Brazil, and he was worried that using this word was a trademark infringement. So he punts on the issue by pretending that "opa" is a ready substiture for "oi," when it is not. It is weird and weak patch-work writing.

    I could mention the many grammatical problems, but that would make this message too long.

    No matter what genre a book may fit into, it should be better written than this.

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  2. I definitely agree that the book could have been better written--and, as I pointed out in the review, probably could have used a few more drafts to iron out the kinks.

    However, having served a mission in Brazil, I know for a fact that "opa" means "hi." Where I was, Minas Gerais, I heard it more often that "oi." I didn't have too many problems with his depiction of Brazil aside from the fact that I think his missionaries seem to have a better understanding and command of the language than any American missionary I ever knew.

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  3. .

    Who is this fellow that hates Shawn so much?

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  4. I have lived in Brazil for over ten years and am married to a Brazilian.

    I have a house in Minas.

    No one I have asked in Brazil, and I have asked many, including my sister-in-law, a college professor of literature, tells me that "opa" means "hi." "Opa" is an exclamation -"wow!". I find it humurous that Americans know more than the Brazilians about Brazilian usage of portuguese.

    Can you meet someone with "wow"? Sure. I had a surprise birthday party once and when I opened the door, the first word out of my mouth was "wow!" Was that a salutation to those 100 people who yelled surprise? Does that mean that "wow!" means "hi"? No, it means that "wow" means "wow!" and "wow" can loosely be interpreted as a salutation in some situations. Often when my mom would cook my favorite meal and when I walked into the kitchen and smelt the charm, the first word I said to her was "wow!". Does that mean that "wow!" means "hi"? We greet someone or a situation with "wow!" but to say that "wow!" means "hi" (or that "opa" means "oi") is silly and stupid and shows disregard for langauge. A good writer knows the uses of language and is careful in using that langauge.

    Of course, this is one example - the other more serious problems (shifts in the point-of-view, etc) illustrate better the overall lax writing.

    Those are facts, and this book is a dog´s breakfast.

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  5. .

    So your issue with the book is that you as a Brazilian don't like this book's presented image of Brazil?

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