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.