"an irreverent, honest look at life outside the mainstream Mormon Church....Throughout his musings on sin and forgiveness, Townsend beautifully demonstrates his characters' internal, perhaps irreconcilable struggles....Rather than anger and disdain, he offers an honest portrayal of people searching for meaning and community in their lives, regardless of their life choices or secrets."– Kirkus Reviews
In these sympathetic but subversive stories, Mormons have their faith tested in ways both subtle and severe.
Most of the characters in Townsend’s latest take on the less-holy side of Latter-day sainthood are devout Mormons coping with realities—and unrealities—that cast their religious strictures in an unsettling light. At the more lurid end of the spectrum, a family finds that their LDS lifestyle uniquely equips them to survive a zombie apocalypse; a reporter hypes the exploits of a masked crime fighter dressed in Mormon Temple robes; a bride is struck down at the altar by a mysterious serial killer; and a straight-laced man has a thrilling sadomasochistic encounter in a dentist’s chair. Other tales feature quieter but still nerve-wracking intrusions: a husband loses his wife to an auto accident and reflects on the forbidden desires roiling their relationship; a family breadwinner struggling with bills risks divine retribution by cutting back on his tithing; the contrast between his boring existence and fantasies of heaven makes a middle-aged man long for death. The pre-eminent documenter of alternative Mormon lifestyles, Townsend (The Mormon Victorian Society, 2013, etc.) continues exploring the tension between religious belonging and repression; his characters are steeped in the highly organized, tightknit social life and elaborate rituals and theology of the church, but they chafe against its constraints on expression and sexuality. His normally understated critique of Mormon sexism, homophobia and reaction occasionally grows strident: In one schematic tale, a terrorist bombing prods a right-wing Mormon into patly repudiating his conservative principles, while in the title story, a woman’s questioning of church doctrine—“Wasn’t sugarcoating Church history just a way of making it more palatable?”—slips into soapboxing. Still, Townsend has a deep understanding of his characters, and his limpid prose, dry humor and well-grounded (occasionally magical) realism make their spiritual conundrums both compelling and entertaining.
Another of Townsend’s critical but affectionate and absorbing tours of Mormon discontent.
|Pub Date: March 15, 2013|
|Page count: 258pp|
Gay Mormons struggle to reconcile their hearts with their faith in these slyly revealing stories.
Townsend’s characters wrestle with the normal neuroses of modern life as distinctively shaped by the Church of Latter-day Saints. In the title story, two young men find that their nostalgia for Victorian culture—sadomasochistic fetishes and a cult of virginity—resonates with their Mormonism. In “Latter-Day Sinners,” a New Orleans man caught in Hurricane Katrina wonders if God’s wrath has been provoked by his homosexual inclinations. The proper Mormon husband of “The Third Part of the Trees” finds his patriarchal authority challenged when his anxiety over global warming prompts him to uproot his family. Elsewhere, the dutiful Mormon angel in “Kolob Abbey” discovers that repressed homosexuality haunts even the most exalted realms of the celestial afterlife. “Julie and Cowboy” follows a closeted student determined to suppress his urges—until his obligatory Mormon fellowship service leads him into temptation in the form of a seductive wastrel. Several stories explore the conflicted impulses of gay Mormons who’ve left the church but find that, after escaping its stifling constraints, they miss the close-knit community it nurtured. Whereas Townsend’s previous story collections charted the darker margins of mainstream Mormon life, in his latest, the tone is more muted, the sexual transgressions less lurid, his characters’ discontent quieter and more reflective, yet it’s no less absorbing. Suffused with talk of politics, these stories register the new openness and confidence of gay life in the age of same-sex marriage; many are set in the tolerant milieu of Seattle, where middle-aged characters lead comfortable, dull lives, their ostracism from the church just another muffled ache amid ordinary estrangements and deflations. What hasn’t changed is Townsend’s wry, conversational prose, his subtle evocations of character and social dynamics, and his deadpan humor. His warm empathy still glows in this intimate yet cleareyed engagement with Mormon theology and folkways.
Funny, shrewd and finely wrought dissections of the awkward contradictions—and surprising harmonies—between conscience and desire.
|Pub Date: July 31, 2012|
|Page count: 246pp|
An irreverent, honest look at life outside the mainstream Mormon Church.
Townsend’s (Mormon Bullies, 2012, etc.) timely book presents a number of touching vignettes focused on quirky characters struggling to reconcile their own beliefs with the rigid doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He focuses much of his attention on the struggle between homosexuality and acceptance within the faith, providing a number of stories focused on gay men who have fallen away from the church. These men have been excommunicated because of their lifestyle, yet they find themselves unable to completely cut ties and walk away from the belief system in which they’d spent years being indoctrinated. Other characters are also struggling with alternate life choices that have placed them outside the mainstream faith. One couple struggles with the decision to remain childless; a devout man questions his own relevance within the church after being overlooked for a higher calling; a depressing LDS singles cruise leads a desperate man to realize he may be too far outside the norm to truly fit into the Mormon community. Townsend touches on family, addiction, sex and love, concepts that should resonate with all readers. Throughout his musings on sin and forgiveness, Townsend beautifully demonstrates his characters’ internal, perhaps irreconcilable struggles. As appropriate for a compilation of stories that present real characters in gritty reality, nothing is black and white. Townsend condemns facets of the religion yet manages to present conflicted viewpoints with balance. Rather than anger and disdain, he offers an honest portrayal of people searching for meaning and community in their lives, regardless of their life choices or secrets.
A perfect read for the election season, though its appeal will endure.
|Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2011|
|Page count: 318pp|
Townsend writes gorgeous, intimate tales from the edges of one of the fastest-growing religions in the world.
The best thing you can say about Townsend’s collection of short stories is that, after reading it, you can’t tell if Townsend is a Mormon. While his many touching vignettes draw deeply from Mormon mythology, history, spirituality and culture, his book is neither a gaudy act of proselytism nor angry protest literature from an ex-believer. Like all good fiction, his stories are simply about the joys, the hopes and the sorrows of people—and here, many of those people just happen to be Mormons. Townsend's status as a Mormon could be best described as a gay ex-Mormon who still associates himself with the traditions of his youth. The author reflects on his complicated faith by creating characters that, like him, dwell on the borders of the Mormon community—a nonbeliever stuck in purgatory, a young Mormon ready to shirk his missionary responsibilities, a gay contemporary of Brigham Young uneasy about taking a fourth wife. Townsend’s genre-bending tales span geography, space and time, taking us from 19th-century Salt Lake City to late-21st century Kansas City, or from “Spirit Prison” to the U.N. where an alien has just arrived to explain that God does really live on the planet Kolob. For a lesser writer, this challenging range would press fiction into absurdity. But for Townsend—who has a bit of Philip K. Dick’s blood flowing through his veins—it only adds to the richness and variety of his developing oeuvre. This range notwithstanding, Townsend knows the value of mining the single moment, and many of his best stories feature lush descriptions of a simple meal or an intimate conversation. Further, he has a flair for writing believable dialogue that reveals, among other things, that the gay Mormon experience is simply another aspect of the human experience.
Mormon literature with a universal appeal.
|Pub Date: Aug. 15, 2010|
|Page count: 258pp|
A collection of short stories set along the connections of gay life, Jewish life and Mormon life.
This 2010 collection from Townsend (Flying Over Babel, 2011, etc.) features 12 stories of lives caught in the conflict of public religion and private identity; the young men in these tales are all searching for a larger happiness, be it social or spiritual or even sexual (“If penguins can be monogamous,” says one character, “we ought to be able to manage it as well”). Obstacles abound—too profusely, in fact; most of these stories suffer because of an emphasis on shocking material. In the long title story, for instance, the burlesque of a rabbi creating a perfect lover out of clay drowns out a rather touching story of frustrated love trying to make itself heard. To one extent or another, this is true of every story here, and after a while, even Townsend’s sharp ear for dialogue and often nuanced treatment of lust can’t soften the text’s emphasis on prompting gasps of outrage from conservative readers. In one story, two good-looking young men find friendship through a shared love of the Talmud—but also through a shared love of frantic shagging in the afternoon, which feels hastily tacked on to a more cerebral but also more involving story. This is, of course, the signature danger of porn: it tends to kill all aesthetics but its own, and its own is usually very, very simple. Townsend is already given to telegraphing his punches: “When I was a kid, I loved staying in the kitchen to hear the women talk,” one of his characters confesses, and the reader can only sigh at this often-used staple of gay coming-of-age stories.
A strong collection, but its internal conflicts—between sensitive depiction of Jewish intellectual life and raunchy tales of porn—ultimately work at cross-purposes.
|Pub Date: Feb. 15, 2010|
|Page count: 409pp|
In this novelistic collection of short stories, a gay Mormon missionary struggles to make sense of sexuality and spirituality in 1970s Italy.
Like most young Mormon men, Robert Anderson wants to show his devotion to his church and his God by being a good missionary. The challenges of adjusting as a 19-year-old to missionaries' stringently austere lifestyle and a foreign culture are exacerbated by the shameful, burdensome secret of Anderson's homosexuality. Nonetheless, Anderson believes that if he's righteous and obedient enough, God will bless him by making him straight. Surviving earthquakes and a war between factions of organized crime are frankly easier than coping with the despair of finding that no matter how faithfully and diligently he works, he's still gay. And the biggest problem Anderson faces is his fellow missionaries, not just those he’s attracted to, but a mean-spirited roommate who uses his authority to torment those he dislikes—especially Anderson. But eventually Anderson is assigned as a working companion a beautiful, young Italian who loves Anderson for the kindness and compassion he shows others; that acceptance helps Anderson see that he deserves some of that compassion himself. It's a pleasure to watch Anderson stand up to his bullying roommate and to joke about situations that he previously could scarcely have acknowledged aloud. Ultimately he calmly accepts disgrace because it carries with it such valuable understanding of himself and the nature of the church for which he's been working. Like all short-story collections from Townsend (Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire, 2011, etc), this new work explores the demands and rewards of being Mormon, occasionally in excessive detail; aware of how unfamiliar Mormonism can seem to a general audience, Townsend occasionally overexplains Mormon doctrine and practice, commenting here multiple times, for instance, on the fabric most often used in Mormon underwear. Told from a believably conversational first-person perspective, this collection's novelistic focus on Anderson's journey to thoughtful self-acceptance allows for greater character development than often seen in short stories, which make this well-paced work rich and satisfying, and one of Townsend’s strongest.
An extremely important contribution to the field of Mormon fiction, whose current growth just might make all that explication unnecessary in the future.
|Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2010|
|Page count: 318pp|
Mormon spirits are willing but the flesh is weak, wayward and kinky in these edgy stories.
The bans on alcohol, coffee and swearing are hard enough, but it’s the Latter Day Saints’ strait-laced sexual strictures that have Townsend’s Mormon characters tied up in knots. Their supreme commandment is to enter a sanctified marriage that will last through eternity and perhaps make them rulers of their own planet, but any pleasure taken outside or before wedlock can get them “dis-fellowshipped” from their close-knit, nosy congregations. From this crucible of inflamed but repressed desire flows a riot of furtive evasion and exuberant transgression. A woman who has sexual fantasies about Jesus—it’s ok, she reasons, because she intends to marry Him in the afterlife—panics when her bishop insists that she find a mortal husband. A studly missionary gets kidnapped and finds himself enjoying a situation that would be profoundly sinful if he weren’t tied up and forced into it. A drag queen hopes that her volunteer work will atone for her shoplifting sprees. A sexually frustrated wife decides that the only way she can save her marriage is by prostituting herself. In the most shocking story, a church pillar with a secret panty fetish takes drastic, biblical measures against his son’s pathologies. Townsend writes with a deadpan wit and a supple, realistic prose that’s full of psychological empathy, but he doesn’t let his characters off the hook. He places them in stark predicaments and observes their legalistic writhing as they try to square their hypocrisies and perversions with their religious beliefs; those who find redemption—a man who accepts his long lost son’s homosexuality, a married white woman who gives birth to her black lover’s child—do so by softening Church dogmas with sexual humanism. Townsend’s depiction of Mormon life is unbalanced and sometimes over-the-top, but still affectionate and generous; he takes his protagonists’ moral struggles seriously and invests them with real emotional resonance.
Lurid but humane tales of faith and its carnal discontents.
|Pub Date: Nov. 20, 2009|
|Page count: 268pp|
Circumventing the paragons espoused by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Townsend (Marginal Mormons, 2012, etc.) returns with a collection of short stories that consider the imperfect, silenced majority of Mormons, who may in fact be its best hope.
Beyond an enigmatic cadre often in the national spotlight, there are regular Mormons; they’re anything but easy to define, but Townsend portrays the less publicized lives they lead. In “The Removal of Debra,” college student Gary receives important advice from his ailing mother, who, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, has been consumed by regret. To God’s own glorification, she implores Gary, pursue authenticity over obedience. “An Igneous Gravestone” also champions instinctual morality over doctrinal conformity, as its protagonist dares to defy his tyrannical mother in the name of preserving a healthy family. “Indian Giver” confronts the church’s ingrained racism: Steve Bitterwater responds to his wife’s race-based acrimony with an inspired request—he wants a gift back. Such tales, the gems of this collection, demystify Mormonism and humanize its sometimes-maligned adherents. Townsend’s characters wrestle with serious questions of faith, but they’re also hearteningly ordinary. They struggle with eating disorders, sexual orientation, questions of virtue and vice, and with their prescribed gender roles. Those unable to comply with the demands of the church often find themselves worrying ad nauseam over the states of their souls, yet the reader is made to recognize the implicit honor in regretful defiance. Not all of Townsend’s stories hit such high notes. Miranda, the capricious and neurotic husband-hunter who appears in three of these narratives, seems burdened less by church expectations than by immaturity. Her recurrence becomes almost disruptive, as does the fact that the vast majority of these tales close with characters either smiling or crying. In “The Deserter,” the impetus behind a young girl’s epiphany strains credulity, and “Homework for Hitler,” otherwise one of the collection’s more magnetic offerings, is undermined by its needlessly provocative moniker. Nonetheless, the strongest moments here leave readers regretting the church’s willingness to marginalize those who best exemplify its ideals: those who love fiercely despite all obstacles, who brave challenges at great personal risk and who always choose the hard, higher road.
Well-laid but sometimes uneven steps toward understanding conflicted believers.