"An irreverent, honest look at life outside the mainstream Mormon Church."– Kirkus Reviews
A collection of political and cultural essays tackles big issues.
“Most of my life I’ve been called both unrealistically naive and overly cynical,” writes Townsend (Human Compassion for Beginners, 2018, etc.) in the introduction to this volume, which covers many of the most divisive fault lines in the current political moment. Perhaps both of these things are requirements for a progressive—or at least one with a sense of humor—which is what the author reveals himself to be as he opines on such topics as religion, capitalism, and the ballooning climate crisis. He gets into narrower issues as well, including in his critique of Israel’s Palestinian policy from the perspective of a Jewish American (albeit one who converted to Judaism after leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of his youth). He writes about why classes on race, gender, and social justice should be mandatory in the workplace. He bemoans the internecine fighting in the Democratic Party between moderates and progressives, all of whom seem more willing to blame Democrats than denounce the Republicans. Each essay comes from Townsend’s particular perspective of growing up gay in the conservative confines of the Latter-day Saints church as well as the pull between the traditions of his upbringing and the necessities of an inclusive modern society. Through anecdotes, observations, and a fair bit of ranting, the author attempts to cajole America back into some semblance of common sense. Townsend writes in an energetic prose that balances crankiness and humor. “When Facebook developed its additional line of emojis to satisfy users who wanted to do more than simply Like another person’s post or comment, we were happy,” begins one essay. “After all, if a Friend posted about their dying cat, we could hardly click Like in response.” The book reads more like a collection of newspaper columns than a work of cultural criticism (and many of these pieces did originally appear as editorials). How much readers will agree with the author will likely depend on their own political beliefs. That said, those who share his worldview—and perhaps feel that same cynic/naif dichotomy within themselves—will applaud his arguments, particularly those regarding the seriousness of climate change.
A rambunctious volume of short, well-crafted essays from a man with a strong point of view.
In this collection of short stories, gay members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attempt to survive their sexually conservative religion.
Some devout Mormon men meet on a weekly basis and have sex with one another, though they justify it by claiming that it’s to keep them from behaving inappropriately with their girlfriends before marriage. An excommunicated gay Mormon runs into his old mission companion, who reminds him of an accidental death that occurred during a baptism. A married gay man decides he must overcome his bias by having sex with men from every race. A group of Mormons goes into a gay bar to try to convert the clientele, but things don’t go quite according to plan. In 18 stories, Townsend (Behind the Bishop’s Door, 2017, etc.) places his characters in positions that put their cultural upbringings at odds with the multifaceted realities of human sexuality. A typical example of this friction is found in “Shadow Boxing,” in which a closeted Mormon man gets a job at a video shop where gay men have sex through glory holes specifically to tease himself in order to overcome temptation: “Preston had read somewhere that the great leader Gandhi had slept every night beside naked women so he could test his moral stamina. If Preston were ever to manage marrying a woman in the temple, he had to know he could resist any and all temptation.” Townsend writes in an easy-flowing, frequently funny prose that captures the worldviews and personalities of his characters with minimal words. The tales are of a piece with his previous fictional works (quite numerous now), which rib Mormon and gay culture and make regular use of ridiculous puns (one story is called “MoreMen Tabernacle Queer”). While the author is generally at his best when working as a satirist, there are some fine, understated touches in these tales that will likely affect readers in subtle ways. Not every story lands perfectly, and Townsend sometimes stumbles into uncomfortable territory (see sex with men from every race), but readers should come away impressed by the deep empathy he shows for all his characters—even the homophobic ones.
A striking volume of irreverent, Mormon-centric gay tales.
Gay Mormons struggle to wash homophobic doctrine right out of their minds in Townsend’s (The Mormon Inquisition, 2016, etc.) latest story collection.
In the author’s latest book, gay members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and their loved ones—face perhaps the greatest moral dilemma possible in a faith that deems heterosexual marriage the preeminent path to salvation, and they weather it with responses ranging from meditative calm to enraged defiance. In “The Bishop’s Beer,” a Mormon bishop copes with the sexual confessions of his flock and his son with a good-natured bemusement that prompts him to buy a dildo for an elderly congregant, and in “Clear-Cutting the Garden of Eden,” a lesbian raped by a respectable Mormon man keeps the baby but confronts the Church with its hypocrisy over the crime in a shocking way. “By Their Queers Ye Shall Know Them” tells the story of a gay ex-Mormon bartender who recalls his passionate affair with a church official; a porn-shop clerk tries to reconcile his job with the Church’s anti-porn stance in “The Assimilation of Hector Garcia”; the breakup of a long relationship in “Vampires of the Blood Atonement” sends a Mormon convert to Judaism back to the Saints for aid and comfort; and in “Massaging My Conscience,” a Mormon male prostitute finds unlikely passion with an unattractive client. These stories are bookended by more adventurous tales about young Mormon missionaries—favorite stock characters of Townsend’s—who respectively get caught up in a doomsday plot and in a Groundhog Day-style time loop. Townsend’s collection once again displays his limpid, naturalistic prose, skillful narrative chops, and his subtle insights into psychology, all set against his warmly ironic evocations of Mormonism’s complex, all-enveloping, close-knit, but sometimes-suffocating culture. However, it can also seem a bit monotonous; longtime Townsend readers will find a sameness in his prose and narrative voices, despite his attempts to enliven them with unusually graphic (and gratuitous) sex scenes. Almost all the stories feature the same central conflict of a character edging away from Mormon intolerance toward a sexually open liberalism, sometimes accompanied by muted soap-boxing for environmentalism and renewable energy, and there’s never a doubt in which direction kindness and humanity lie. For all its self-conscious transgression, Townsend’s fiction can sometimes feel smugly conventional.
Well-crafted dispatches on the clash between religion and self-fulfillment that never quite break out of the box.
Townsend (Gayrabian Nights, 2014, etc.) uses the apocalypse as a window into the secret lives of Mormons in this satirical novel.
In the last week, America has crumbled into an apocalypse of biological and nuclear warfare. Luckily, Mormons Gavin and Nellie have been stockpiling nonperishables. As their formerly tightknit community of Hurricane, Utah, descends into an orgy of violence and cannibalism, Gavin and Nellie can think of nothing better to do than sit around and wait for the Second Coming. Gavin isn’t terribly bothered by the whole thing: “Gavin couldn’t wait for the Millennium to start. Maybe then, life would finally be worth living. It certainly hadn’t been worth it the first fifty-seven years of his life.” Nellie encourages Gavin to shoot anyone that comes to the door, but he ends up letting people in—traumatized neighbors who require shelter and food. Because suicide is out of the question (it’s a sin), the group passes the time by telling each other stories: an obese woman contemplates divorces after discovering her husband masturbating; a teacher encourages a group of girls to write letters to themselves in the future; a woman uses her faith to justify all the tragedies that she encounters, including running over a pet dog. As the stories unfold, the assembled Mormons learn that their neighbors’ beliefs are more complex (and far less orthodox) than they previously supposed. Townsend, a confident and practiced storyteller, skewers the hypocrisies and eccentricities of his characters with precision and affection. The outlandish framing narrative is the most consistent source of shock and humor, but the stories do much to ground the reader in the world—or former world—of the characters. The extent to which some are still so offended by sex and sin, even as life literally burns around them, is played for genuine laughs. Townsend’s messages are at times heavy-handed, and readers who come to the novel already critical of religion will find their opinions confirmed. But the good-natured gallows humor of the author’s project should keep his audience committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.
A funny, charming tale about a group of Mormons facing the end of the world.
Uncertain young adults fess up, hook up, and give up in these wryly subversive stories about Mormons doing missionary work.
Townsend’s latest collection focuses on what must be one of mankind’s most grueling coming-of-age rites: the two-year, post–high school stint that Mormon men—and some women—spend roaming the world in business suits, trying to convince total strangers to convert to Mormonism. As they recite the doctrine of the faith, Townsend’s missionaries are beset by trials, doubts, emotional turmoil, as well as crazy plot twists: two missionary “sisters” attempt to minister to a Cincinnati streetwalker; two missionary men are counterproselytized by a film instructor; a black Mormon in Mississippi confronts thoughtless racism with forbearance; and an ambitious missionary thinks he can sell the church as a form of Nietzschean self-aggrandizement. In other stories, two missionaries break the rules by taking jobs as male strippers; another on a malfunctioning airliner insists that God will see him through; a perpetually horny Mormon wonders if sperm donation is a permissible mode of relief; and a duo is given a secret assignment to murder an apostate. Townsend draws an evocative portrait of the missionary experience and its mixture of exaltation and dejection. Readers see the intense bonding—and loathing—between missionary “companions” who are never allowed out of each other’s company; the statistics-obsessed missionary bureaucracy stomping the enthusiasm out of acolytes; the incessant crushing rejection, as missionaries’ targets greet them with slammed doors; and the crises of faith that these burdens spark in confused young people who dread the shame of being sent home. This being a Townsend work, stories sometimes culminate in unforeseen gay sex: poignantly, for a 49-year-old virgin who feels like “a glass that had just been filled with fresh water” when he reconnects with his companion, and very cheesily in the pornographic “Prayer Circle Jerk.” Usually, however, the author treats the clash between religious dogma and liberal humanism with vivid realism, sly humor, and subtle feeling as his characters try to figure out their true missions in life.
Another of Townsend’s rich dissections of Mormon failures and uncertainties, this time among the shock-troops of faith.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grapple with the harshness of church teachings in these ironic but heartfelt stories.
Townsend’s (Lying for the Lord, 2015, etc.) latest collection features mostly Mormon characters, some devout and some questioning, whose faith is tested by crises great and small. A man whose niece is missing in a great tsunami wonders why local churchgoers seem indifferent to the catastrophe; a literature student is asked by a church leader to write Amazon reviews of anti-Mormon books—without reading them; and a teacher decides that cruelty is next to godliness, for her students and everyone else. In other tales, a couple’s marriage is threatened by church regulations; a woman is appalled when the death of her family in a car crash becomes grist for church moralizing; and a Girl Scout troop endures heat, bugs, and horror stories about anti-Mormon atrocities. In still other stories, a woman finds her bishop’s condemnation of her murdered son’s homosexuality to be strangely comforting; an ex-missionary who’s abandoned the church decides to apologize to all the converts he baptized; and a teenage girl wonders why divine prophecies about her future keep changing. Townsend’s tales are steeped in religious peculiarities—his characters shape their lives around rituals and process the world through the lens of Mormon doctrine, which invests ordinary family life with cosmic significance and even the tiniest vices, such as drinking coffee, with dire sinfulness. Some motifs repeat: the experience of young missionaries scrounging for converts is a favorite, as are iconic scenes of family get-togethers. The author treats Mormon idiosyncrasies with a mixture of fond bemusement and resentment; many stories are about how empty theodicy—theories of why God permits evil—can seem to suffering people. In his great theme of the eternal clash between liberal humanism and religious strictures, the latter usually come off as petty and callous. Still, Townsend is a wonderful writer with a wry but sympathetic eye for humans’ frailties and the ways in which religious belief both exacerbate and console them.
More vibrant parables about doubts and blasphemies that hide beneath a veneer of piety.
Countless fibs, evasions, and hypocrisies buttress the verities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in these slyly subversive stories.
Townsend’s (Gayrabian Nights, 2014, etc.) latest probe of Mormonism’s queer underbelly features upstanding families struggling to hold together strands of church dogma as they fray against reality. In “French Kissing Sister Andrews,” a teenage wiseacre hurls gibes at the anti-sex platitudes of his church youth group. In “A Name and a Blessing,” a father finds himself turning a blind eye to his transsexual son’s scandalous behavior. In “A Hall Monitor for the Celestial Kingdom,” a clueless prig’s refusal to forgive anyone’s transgressions leaves him smugly isolated. In “Lord of the Cul de Sac,” a Mormon couple appeases an irascible neighbor with baked goods, to comically disastrous effect. In “The Three Nephites Drink Eggnog,” a father hires actors to play characters from Scripture as a Christmas Eve rite—and ends up inadvertently exposing the charade, and much else, to his sardonic son. In “Burying the Fig Leaves,” a devout Mormon woman consoles herself that her sister died strong in the faith, despite evidence to the contrary. And in “The Blood Clot,” a woman convinces herself that she has a terminal illness so she can lead a gracious life. As always, Townsend’s subtly realistic prose vividly captures the counterpoint between the ordinariness of daily life and the often boring routines of religious obligation. There’s a self-consciously political note here, with much pondering of up-to-the-minute progressive issues, including the Ferguson riots, and occasional snatches of dialogue that sound like they come from a cultural studies seminar—“My gender is female. It’s only my body that’s male”—instead of a 14-year-old Mormon. Townsend seems eager to battle and caricature religious conservatives—a rancorous introduction castigates traditionalists who write dismissive reviews of his books and compares Mormon zealots to Nazis—and, in “Escape from Zion,” he paints a lurid vision of an America ruled by a Mormon theocracy. Still, especially in his quieter stories about gay Mormons weathering exile from the church, he gets under the skin of his characters to reveal their complexity and conflicts.
Another of Townsend’s shrewd, evocative, wryly humorous, occasionally didactic scenes of Mormonism and its discontents.
Gay Mormons struggle for acceptance from a hostile church—and themselves—in these wryly subversive stories.
Townsend’s latest collection recycles stories from past collections and frames them with a new yarn whose chapters unfold between them. The latter involves a Mormon male prostitute named Houston who has a tryst with a closeted Mormon Republican senator in a Washington hotel room. Learning that he plans to vote for an anti-gay bill the following day, Houston, imitating Scheherazade from Arabian Nights, decides to soften the legislator’s self-loathing heart with tales of gay Mormon life. These stories foreground usually closeted, usually devout Mormons wrestling with the doctrines of a religion that insists on heterosexual marriage and child-rearing as the sole path to holiness. Many of them are wracked with guilt and fears of hell—an old man welcomes a terminal cancer diagnosis as a release from a life of tormented celibacy, and a Brigham Young student tries electroshock to cure himself of lustful thoughts—while others finesse an accommodation between their sexual longings and their faith: two Mormon missionaries go on a public date; a shy bookstore cashier inches toward his first relationship; and a husband decides to tell church officials about his cross-dressing even if it means excommunication. Townsend weaves explicit, matter-of-fact sex into his characters’ authentic religious aspirations, setting the conflicts in a well-observed realism lit with flashes of deadpan humor. A few stories slide from satire into ridicule—one new husband’s wedding night with plural brides is so traumatic that he winds up with men instead—and the long framing story, the collection’s only original, is a disappointment, with the Scheherazade routine feeling contrived and evincing a rare preachiness. (“Why don’t you come over to the good side?” Houston implores the Republican Darth Vader he is trying to beguile.) Still, Townsend’s prose is always limpid and evocative, and at his best, as in a story about a son trying to console his dying mother for her unfulfilling life, he finds real drama and emotional depth in the most ordinary of lives.
There’s little new material in this repackaging of previously published stories, but this is a good introduction to Townsend’s cleareyed, funny, empathetic dissection of Mormonism and its discontents.
A collection of subversive short stories about members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Townsend, the author of Dragons of the Book of Mormon (2013) and the instant 2010 cult-classic The Golem of Rabbi Loew, returns with a new collection of sharply intelligent tales revolving around disillusionment with the Mormon faith. Strong-willed 20-year-old Sister Covino of “A Mormon Motive for Murder” thinks to herself: “If the Book of Mormon wasn’t true, if Joseph Smith wasn’t a real prophet, if the Church itself wasn’t true…was any of it true?” The stories are full of such doubters, but there’s no vindictiveness in these pages; the characters continuously poke holes in Mormonism’s more extravagant absurdities, but they take very little pleasure in doing so. Their layers of disillusionment make the stories pleasingly complex, as in the disturbing “Renting Mom and Dad,” in which a parentless young woman of Seattle’s Native American Swinomish tribe finds Mormonism intriguing—not only due to the comforting family life it seems to represent, but also because she’s told that the faith’s Scripture was written by native peoples of America. In the collection’s best piece, “The Homeless Bishop,” a Salt Lake City Mormon bishop disguises himself as a homeless person in order to test the charity of his congregation, and his final realizations are quietly shattering. Many of Townsend’s stories, which often feature apostate and/or gay characters, have a provocative edge to them, but this collection displays a great deal of insight as well. “You can never have peace with someone who thinks they’re better than everybody else,” says a disgruntled elder in the title story—a sentiment that seems aimed at the Mormon faith in general. It’s an angle familiar to anyone who laughed at the hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, and much of the same kind of satire animates these fine tales.
A playful, biting and surprisingly warm collection of perspectives on Mormonism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.