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.