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.