(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.)There’s good Mormon fiction out there. If you know where to look for it. (Hint: It’s not at Deseret Book) Zarahemla Books, “The Death of a Disco Dancer,” by David Clark, is narrated by Todd Whitman, 11, of Mesa, Ariz., whose “Mormon 101″ life with a doctor/bishop Dad, in-charge-at-home mom and siblings, is thrown for a loop with the permanent arrival of his maternal Grandma Carter, suffering from dementia that’s only getting worse.
For reasons that include a thick LDS Book of Remembrance, a John Travolta record cover and pure chance, Grandma begins frequent late-night wanderings into Todd’s room where she talks with this “young man” about dancing, her dancer, and requests that he read letters in her well-thumbed-through Book of Remembrance that seem to almost touch her memories. During the days, Todd is a stranger to Grandma. At night, Todd, perceptive enough to not reveal these visits, and thereby slam one more door in Grandma’s increasingly confined life, is a companion to his grandmother’s fading life.
Clark understands that within families, there will always be secrets that may never be explained. As Grandma is forcibly removed from her husband to her daughter’s home, she bitterly tells Charlie, her husband, who dies soon after, that “it’s 1960″ all over again, and finally he got what he wanted. No one other than Charlie knows what that means. One late night, Todd reads to Grandma, from the Book of Remembrance, a 1960 era letter from Charlie begging his wife, Gail, to take him back. We never learn more about the short separation, apparently hidden even from their kids. It’s a reminder that there are some secrets that parents don’t share with children, and that we often never learn.
That is contrasted with an assault new-seventh-grader Todd suffers from a sexually sadistic gym teacher, who in front of the class, brutally humiliates and beats Todd. The beating leaves serious wounds to his buttocks. Rather than have the teacher arrested, Todd and his brother go to great pains to hide the wounds. Although the gym teacher nonchalantly threatens Todd if he tells, that’s not the motivation for Todd’s reluctance. Todd worries that to expose the beating will lead to his own social disgrace. A further incident in this subplot involves Todd’s mother, Linda, hearing of the discipline and demanding that Todd inform the school authorities. She’s rebuffed by her husband, Bob, who believes Todd must have done something to deserve the beating. The matter ends there, and nothing more is said, although Bob spends the night on the couch.
Neither of Todd’s parents know how brutal and sadistic the beating was. His dad’s reaction reflects a masculine belief of that era, that men didn’t mollycoddle boys, but instead taught them to “grow up.” Todd, and his brother Gregory, seem to accept that sadism fits in that coda. It’s an ugly part of life in 1981 that’s also hinted at earlier when Todd’s dad ignores his wife’s complaints about a male baseball coach that checks for cup protectors by thrusting a bat between the junior high boys’ legs.
These scenes, as well as Todd’s interactions with eccentric, but less dangerous adult ward members and school teachers, as well as his peers, boys and girls, occupy half the novel. Mixed in with the slow deterioration of Grandma Gail Carter, and her nightly excursions to Todd’s room, Todd’s life between childhood and teens, with school, interest in girls, church, Grandma, etc., align with his slow growth and maturity. There is a scene, where the family travels to Utah to bury Grandma’s husband, Charlie. While there, Todd listens to a conversation between his mom and her elder brother, who has avoided helping with Grandma and her dementia. During the conversation, Todd’s uncle cries a lot but takes no responsibility for his mom’s sad condition. He constantly requests his sister, Todd’s mom, to take initiative. As Clark writes, (Todd realizes) “Uncle Ted is a total wuss. Maybe the biggest wuss on earth.”
It’s an eye-opener for a young man who realizes his mother’s choice to care for her helpless parents is not an obligation, but a choice that takes charity, love, will and strength, attributes his uncle lacks in droves.
The themes of dancing and disco are prevalent in the books. Chapters are named after disco-era songs. It also highlights how confusing — to all of us, not just the aged — dementia is. A John Travolta record cover is like one piece in a puzzle to an old woman who can’t connect to 98 percent of the puzzle pieces; but she grabs at what she can.
Interludes in the novel take us to 2011, where Todd is preparing for the death of his mother, Linda. The short scenes capture the regret and irony of having to make depressing decisions for those who once took care of our every need.
There are amusing anecdotes in “The Death of a Disco Dancer,” but it’s at heart a bittersweet tale. When you live too long, death is demeaning, and taxing for those who love you the most. And it’s a challenge to find the good in that stranger who once loved you, so reach out at every shard of memory that offers a glimpse of their humanity. (You can learn more about the novel here. Be advised that Kindle and other online editions are cheaper.)