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.