New short fiction from Jack Harrell and Johnny Townsend

1.18.12 | | 8 comments

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Or newish, rather. Harrell’s collection (A Sense of Order and Other Stories) came out in 2010 and Townsend’s (Mormon Fairy Tales) in 2011.

(Obligatory notes: Harrell’s book was originally given by his publisher to Karen Rosenbaum who wrote about it in Dialogue and then passed it on to me; Townsend’s was given to me with the idea that I might eventually review it.)

I finished reading A Sense of Order (skip to review) in April and stopped reading Mormon Fairy Tales shortly thereafter. Since then I’ve been meaning to take my (copious) notes and write about them.

But I’m not writing this post because I’ve figured out how to write about these books together, but because I will never figure out how unless I do.

mormonfairytalesFirst I should address the obvious point I’ve already made: I did not like Townsend’s book enough to finish it. And I must be clear that this has nothing to do with his role as The Gay Gadfly of Mormon Letters. As decent reviews of his fiction show, Townsend is not without skill. In fact, there were stories in Mormon Fairy Tales which, in conceit, were pretty terrific. It’s the execution that is lacking.

Perhaps that’s because, unlike some of his previous collections, Mormon Fairy Tales consists of stories not previously published? Perhaps without the help of a magazine editor, Townsend cannot sculpt them into an excellent final form? If so, I see no shame in this. Frankly, anyone who thinks their best work is done without aid of an editor is, in a word, wrong. On the other hand, having a score of stories and the modern publishing scene being what it is, why not just put out a book?

“The Three Nephites Get Syphilis” is a good example of what I’m talking about. Here’s the foundational conceit: Tired of marrying women who then grow old and die, the Three Nephites turn to each other to meet their “needs.” But now they’re getting on each other’s nerves and go to see an LDS therapist (who, being LDS, doesn’t like gay people). Solid enough idea. But not a story.

(It does, however, have one genuinely funny line which I will quote now so I don’t seem like a total hater:

“Oh, he [Alma the Younger, who married the Three] was resurrected by then. We met him at a brunch shortly after Jesus showed up.”

“Nephites had brunches?”

“We were a very advanced people.” [41])

Essentially, every story in the book (I did read most of them) has the same two-part moral—some emphasize one half, some the other:

  1. the proper attitude toward Mormonism is the breaking free of its shackles
  2. Mormons aren’t as good as they’ld have us believe (often evidenced by the fact that they would have us believe they are good)

Mormonism is a weight and Mormon characters either suffer from a horrible guilt or they try to inflict it on everyone else. I don’t doubt that this is part of Townsend’s history with the faith, but this is fiction right? Shouldn’t fiction have some nuance?

Anyway, everything I liked about this book devolved into making me annoyed.

The first story, “Spirit Prison Blues,” sets the theme; it starts off “balanced” between being silly and thoughtful, then ends up pretending not to moralize. “The Black Sea” (a heavy-handed abortion story, sample line: “Abortion was next to murder on the list of sins.”) introduces the collection’s repeating image of oil spills (interesting, but not much was ever done with it.) “The Suicide Police” was probably the best story in the collection, but, in the end, is about just another crazy person.

As I read, I started rooting for the author, hoping he would pull off a really great why-Mormonism-sucks story, but he just kept falling short. (This was a weird situation to find myself in, to say the least.)

In conclusion, let me talk about the collection’s final story.

“Death at the Temple of Inscriptions” is another great starting point. Sad-to-be-estranged-from-the-faith-of-his-fathers, respectable gay man is marrying the love of his life (someone not at all sad to have left Mormonism behind) atop a Mezoamerican Temple as that location would make their nuptials seem “a step between civil and celestial marriage, a substitute that would do until the real thing became available” ().

The primary sin this story commits is this: Fiction shall be more believable than nonfiction. For instance, our protagonist once received a postcard that reads, “I hope all the lesbians swim back to Africa with a faggot under each arm” (276). While such a postcard may indeed have been written sometime somewhere (read comments on newspaper websites lately?), fiction must be more believable than reality. And this just feels like a great line that popped into a writer’s head one fine afternoon. Also, attending this wedding in Mexico will be Susan Sarandon, Elijah Wood, Amy Adams, etc. Also, a boy baptized by our protag on his mission, now a bishop, feels

willing to make his own political stand by telling the Church he endorsed our marriage. I hoped it wouldn’t get him in trouble, but of course the strict authoritarian nature of the Church allowed no dissension whatever, so that hope was probably in vain. (279)

Sigh.

I suppose it’s handy for Townsend to turn the Church into nothing more than a boogeyman, but it’s cheap and dishonest shortcut-storytelling. But in case things aren’t obvious enough already, “Death at the Temple of Inscriptions” also includes terrorists taking over an airplane, Prop 8, Deepwater Horizon, flat characters who hate gay men, flat characters who love gay men, etc etc etc.

The real problem (besides everything listed above) is that these stories allow no room for ambiguity. Townsend never lets the reader escape a story without being told exactly what to think. I hate that at the best of times. Doesn’t everyone? Isn’t that the complaint people are always throwing at Jack Weyland?

And that’s all you need to know. Mormon Fairy Tales is like a weaker Weyland collection only with a generous seasoning of sex and different politics.

asenseoforder_fromSBpageAmbiguity is, however, practically an article of faith in Jack Harrell’s Sense of Order, which you’ll know if you, like me, have drooled over “Calling and Election” which I’ve told so many people to read that I ought to be collecting a paycheck. So the highest praise I can give this volume is to say that “Calling and Election” is not its best story. It also, I’m afraid, falls a bit short at times, but over all it’s a pretty great book and, by my judgment, the second best book of Mormon fiction I read in 2011.

Not all the stories in Sense of Order are explicitly Mormon. “The Trestle,” for instance, contains a matter-of-fact supernaturalism that I associate with much Mormon fiction (including Townsend’s) without ever being so much Mormon. (Pretty sly story though.)

Like some of Townsend’s stories that I was complaining about, “The Trestle” could very easily have descended into mere gimmickry. But I can’t assign an agenda to this story—I have to work through it’s layers of meaning on my own. Which is the difference, I think, between literature and didacticism.

To consider “Calling and Election” again, it’s not clear whether it’s protagonist is sane or not, whether Brother Lucy is sent from the Church or if he is the devil (or both simultaneously). And the moral of the story? Welllll. Let’s just say that some people think the story is a beautiful meditation on faith and sacrifice while others think it attacks faith.

I think my favorite story in the collection is its first story, “Tregan’s Mettle” (originally “A Visit for Tregan“) in which the least actively Mormon kid in an overwhelmingly Mormon town is joined by Jesus at a Megadeth concert.

Again: this could be a gimmick. This story could have very easily been nothing more than a dozen-page gag of the type I wrote of above. But it isn’t. First of all, it’s thirty pages long (winkwink), but more importantly, it asks some serious questions about the relationship between God and his people. First, for all the talk we Mormons make about “other people” telling God he can’t have prophets anymore, we like to keep God all boxed up ourselves. While the reaction of this town to Tregan’s experience is overly harsh, it never quite pushes past the believability line. Because, seriously, Jesus? at a Megadeth concert? really?

But Tregan, let’s be honest, has much more in common with Samuel or Mary or Joseph Smith than, say, Thomas S. Monson. He’s a good kid thrown by [God?] into a situation that makes people—often good people—lift their eyebrows at him.

Then Tregan makes a move that’s totally and utterly unexpected to anyone who knows how Mormon stories are supposed to play out. And Jesus reacts in a way I didn’t expect but, upon further reflection, probably should have.

Really, my only complaint is the final sentence. (“. . . from this moment nothing would ever be the same,” Harrell? Really?)

But then, I’m not sure endings are Harrell’s strength. “A Prophet’s Story” (excerpted in Sunstone) gives us a prophet in the Monson mold (actually, he seems more Hinckleyesque, but I suppose that’s irrelevant) slightly trapped in his role who meets a friend. Kind of like The Prince and the Pauper perhaps, only without proper switching of places. Terrific story. Rather anticlimactic ending.

The other odd bit to the collection is its short-shorts, which often are just that: short.

But that doesn’t get in the way of what he’s done successfully. The way the stories overlap and refer to each other (the Adam and Eve imagery, for instance) is notable, and a story like “Godsight”—which I could easily describe to you in language that would make you certain it must be a vile antiMormon tract, is in fact a beautiful meditation on Gethsemene. I kid you not.

And that’s what fiction can do. It can be something other than what it seems to be.

I don’t care what side of which line you’re on. If your fiction tells me what to think and leaves no room for ambiguity, no thank you. But if your fiction leads me see the world as more beautiful because more complex, then you’re doing something right.

A Sense of Order provides just such an effect.

8 comments: “New short fiction from Jack Harrell and Johnny Townsend

  1. Katya

    I’m only about halfway through the Harrell book, but I generally concur with your evaluations. I loved “Tregan’s Mettle” and I think Harrell’s hippie Jesus will resonate with anyone who appreciated Levi Peterson’s (smoking!) cowboy Jesus or Anna Lewis’ skateboarding, miniature golfing Jesus.

    “The Trestle” reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode (in a good way), but thus far I can take or leave the other works that don’t have explicit religious content. (That said, I’m reading the book for my wiki, so maybe I’m just less interested in the stories that don’t seem to tie into that collection of works in a meaningful way.)

  2. Katya

    [T]hus far I can take or leave the other works that don’t have explicit religious content.

    And as soon as I’d posted that, I remembered “Red Knight Walks Home,” which I found heartbreaking. (It doesn’t help that my grandfather’s nickname was “Red,” so the name has personal resonance for me, as well.)

  3. Jonathan Langford

    Theric,

    Thanks for these reviews. Some comments/queries:

    - You said you “stopped reading” Mormon Fairy Tales, but mentioned the last story in the collection. How much did you read/not read?

    - You cited the dictum that fiction should be more believable than nonfiction. And yet Jack Harrell’s fiction (based both on the examples you cite and on the one story of his that I’ve read, “Calling and Election”) seems quite regularly to incorporate the bizarre and improbable. Is there some difference in the nature of the “improbable” that Harrell includes, versus what Townsend includes? Or is it more a matter of context (i.e., didactic versus ambiguous)?

    - You said it’s unclear, in Calling and Election, “whether Brother Lucy is sent from the Church or if he is the devil (or both simultaneously).” Interestingly, the possibility that Brother Lucy was actually sent by the Church is one that I don’t recall entertaining. Rather, the ambiguity I saw was on whether he was the devil or was simply a figment of the main character’s imagination. Demonic temptation, or mental illness? Or both somehow simultaneously?

  4. FoxyJ

    I loved “Tregan’s Mettle” from the moment I read it in Dialogue. And I will confess that “Calling and Election” has never done much for me. My personal favorite from the collection is “October Soil”; Jack read it at the AML reading night last year and it is beautiful on many levels.

  5. Th.

    .

    (in response to Jonathan, #3)

    - I read probably 60-80% of the book’s total words. After reading the first, oh, ten, I started skipping around, making sure to hit the ones with the most intriguing premises. Most of the stories I started, I also finished.

    - I think the difference comes down to what claims the story is making within the world of the story. Both Harrell and Townsend attempt to inject an element of the weird into the real world, but for the weird/supernatural/otherwise unreal element to work, the real world needs to be particularly real. And Townsend played too loose with the real world for the unreal elements to work as they were intended to. In his Three Nephites story for instance, the bickering, sorta gay, world-weary Nephites were orders of magnitude more believable than the therapist they contact. Largely, as my stream of adjectives suggests, because they were intensely better developed. The therapist’s character had no roundness at all. For a good comedy team to work, the straight man (no pun intended) needs to be a believable foil for the audience. And Townsend’s straight men (man, that’s an unfortunate pun) are so shallow and negative that no reader will be able to understand them let alone identity with them.

    - The mental illness angle is an important one and a reading the story certainly supports. In the end though, I think Brother Lucy is real. the only question for me is where did he come from? But you’re right in that in so phrasing it I cut off a popular interpretation of the text.

    (in reply to FoxyJ, #4)

    Even His lesser stories have an inherent worth, I think.

  6. Scott Hales

    This review doesn’t give me a huge desire to read the work of Johnny Townsend. I’ve only recently heard of him, and I keep meaning to read some of his work, but I’m not finding a whole lot out there to motivate me to do so.

    Any fans of his work out there?

  7. Th.

    .

    I would like to hear from them too, honestly. He gathers enough blurbs that he must have appreciators.

    I had long wanted to read Townsend myself, mostly based on the blurb-heavy ads in Sunstone.

    Scott, if you want, I’ll send you my copy. Email me your address.

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