(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here). There’s an extremely profane scene in “Multiple Maniacs,” one of filmmaker John Waters’ earliest films, that takes place in a Catholic church and involves the actors Divine, Mink Stole, playing a nun, and a rosary. Waters has been quoted as saying that he got Catholicism “out of his system” with that wildly offensive scene. I thought of Waters’ quote when I read Brian Evenson’s “Father of Lies,” a violent tale of an ecclesiastical leader shielded by religious superiors, and leaders of a religious university, from the crimes of rape, pedophilia, spousal abuse and murder. For Evenson, a former Mormon and BYU professor, it was — in my opinion — a thinly veiled attempt to shuck Mormonism out of his system.
Fifteen years after the lightly read “Father of Lies,” fiction about Mormons written by lapsed Mormons is hot. There’s a lot of religion being shucked out of the systems of a lot of authors, albeit not nearly as graphically as Evenson or Waters. There’s “The Lonely Polygamist,” as well as “Elders,” and another offering, a collection of short stories, “Godforsaken Idaho,” by a lapsed Mormon named Shawn Vestal. That hasn’t got as much press as “Lonely Polygamist” or Elders,” so I invested $6 via Kindle and spent a not unpleasant few days reading Vestal’s stuff.
He’s an exceptionally talented short story writer, and his critiques of his former faith range from the subtle to coshing you over the head with his prose. Although the cover features a photo of Joseph Smith, such Mormon ideals of family ties and families being forever assume greater roles in Vestal’s tales. I particularly liked his first short story, “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death.” In it, Vestal manages to create a completely unique vision of the afterlife. In it we live eternally in the same condition that our body enjoyed when we die.
The narrator, Rex, a chronic adulterer who abandoned his children before dying at 47, finds that peace can only be encountered in your past life. Death does not offer a new body, or a better spirit. Any experience in your life can be recalled, and any dish or drink ordered in the afterlife cafeteria. As Rex says, “Now that it’s gone your life is the only thing that you have left. Ransack it, top to bottom. Plunder that fucker. Find whatever you can in there, because it’s all there is.” Joseph Smith plays a cameo in this tale, as an arrogant guy being damned by a few others as he struts through the eternal cafeteria. The tale ends with a riff on the families are forever mantra, as Rex and his past and future generations plan a family reunion, egged on by a relative who was a Mormon. The reunion falters and fails, as its participants realize they have nothing in common with each other.
“Winter Elders” is the darkest of Vestal’s tales of Mormonism, the closest to an Evenson-type story (although his “Opposition In All Things” is pretty grim, too). It features, “Bradshaw,” ex-Mormon, with wife and new baby, consumed by a hatred for his former religion. When a disturbed Mormon missionary, Elder Pope, won’t leave him alone, it leads to a violent conclusion. Vestal’s prose is impressive: “Pope smiled patiently at Bradshaw, lips pressed hammily together. It was the smile of every man he had met in church, the bishops and first counselors and stake presidents, the benevolent mask, the put-on solemnity, the utter falseness. It was the smile of the men who brought boxes of food when Bradshaw was a teenager and his father wasn’t working, the canned meat and bricks of cheese.” What conflicts Bradshaw, an emotion reflected in Elder Pope that must be destroyed, is a sole memory of Bradshaw once accepting the emotions of his former religion.
A couple of other stories, “Gulls” and “Diviner,” explore the paradox of accepting a person, religion, or ideology that disgusts you. In “Gulls,” young teen Sara Miller, living in late 1840s Utah, is tired of her faith, her hypocrite father, and not enamored of a bishop who wants to make her his plural wife. Sara’s father is furious she is hedging on Bishop Warren’s proposal: “When she’d told him she wanted to pray over the proposal before giving Bishop Warren an answer, she had seen blood and confusion gathering under his skin. ‘Do you not think,’ he had whispered harshly, ‘that I have prayed on it myself?’ … Three days passed, and Sara received no answer to her prayers. The expectations of Bishop Warren shaded every minute of every day, and she felt her father’s heart darkening toward her.”
Before long, Sara receives visions of death and decay. Just before the Mormon legend of the miracle of the seagulls occurs, Sara begins to anticipate, and welcome the desolation caused by the crickets. When her farm is saved, instead, Sara, bemused, is resigned to becoming a polygamous wife.
“Diviner” is not among the best in the collection, but it’s an interesting take on a pre-prophet Joseph Smith, narrated by Isaac Hale, the father of Smith’s eventual wife, Emma. Told in journal entries, it casts Smith as a still-teen hired by a skeptical Hale and several greedy neighbors to find buried treasure. Vestal’s Smith is a charismatic, attractive youth, who easily captivates Emma. Smith’s constant revelations and “readings of stone,” his client’s fruitless digging, and Smith’s explanations that God is continuing to sink the treasure lower into the earth, eventually leads to anger and violence, including tarring and feathering, against the professional money-digger. To Hale’s dismay, that only increases his daughter’s love for the young con man.
After Emma runs off and marries Smith, Isaac suffers a breakdown, only to recover some after reuniting with the now married couple and accepting that which he finds abhorrent. As Vestal writes, “He (Smith) believes his foolishness, every bit of it, and so is merely a man. He never asks anyone else to pray, and I am relieved not to do it and offended not to be asked. When Emma looks at him in admiration or love or whatever it is that pulls them toward each other, I feel I have crossed into a fresh hell. And yet I am happy to be here, somewhat. I had rather be near her than not.”
The resignations of Vestal’s characters. “Sara” and Isaac Hale to live in that which repels them is an interesting theme through Vestal’s stories. Another prevalent theme of the stories is that of a father and/or husband who fails to take responsibility for his actions or preserve healthy relationships with children or spouses. In an interview published at amazon.com, Vestal says that an influence on the actions of wayward men in his stories is his father, a man who served time in jail and prison.
A sidenote: There is excellent “grizzly bear” Mormon-themed fiction authored by active Mormons. Authors include Douglas Thayer, Christopher Bigelow, Todd Robert Petersen, Coke Newell, Eugene Woodbury, Jonathan Langford, etc. Yet they haven’t attracted a wide audience. One reason may be that these works are ignored by the LDS Church’s publisher, Deseret Book, which still favors bland, “teddy bear” prose on its bookshelves.