Mormon missionaries encounter hard times and a Mephistophelian menace in von Osten’s (This Happy Life, 2013, etc.) raucous coming-of-age satire.
In 1967, with the Vietnam War raging, plenty of young Mormon men try to escape the draft by undertaking two-year missionary stints for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But John Gaumless, a Salt Lake City native whose high draft number makes him exempt from call-up, has genuinely spiritual motives, stoked by his high-minded girlfriend, Marylou. Alas, his time proselytizing in Northern Ireland gradually erodes his illusions about the church. The Irish people, Protestant and Catholic alike, respond to Mormon overtures with curses, hurled rocks and tossed chamber pots. The mission’s president is a feckless man who spends his time feeding his swans as his seething wife and scheming underlings plot petty power plays. Bored, lonely, cold and depressed, the other young missionaries transgress the Mormon strictures against alcohol and engage in back-stabbing rivalries and furtive gay trysts. John, a floundering innocent, finds his only friend in Orson Roundtower—a handsome, sardonic Brigham Young University basketball star who prefers Dostoevsky to the Book of Mormon and regards LDS doctrine with bemused contempt. (At one point, Roundtower ups his conversion numbers by bribing an Irish family to undergo Mormon baptism in exchange for bottles of orange Fanta.) John finds Roundtower to be an island of relaxed urbanity in a sea of hypocritical dogmatism, but as their relationship intensifies, he starts to wonder why villagers flee from his friend—and why so many missionaries keep dying in his vicinity. Von Osten’s sendup of Mormon doctrine, rituals and culture is detailed and cutting. Marylou’s antic letters to John, stuffed with Mormon piety and ditzy uplift—“When the tough get going, the going gets tough!”—are particularly hilarious. The book’s portrait of bedraggled teenage missionaries, feigning religious ardor as a coverup for self-interest and bureaucratic inertia, is well-observed throughout. The narrative does feel somewhat aimless, though, except when Roundtower takes center stage with his debonair charisma, rakish humor and unapologetic mischievousness. Before Roundtower’s villainy subsides, a bit disappointingly, into mere melodrama, he presents a compelling case for why deviltry remains such an appealing alternative to holiness.
A meandering but often funny and entertaining picaresque about the Mormon faith.