Our country has had its eccentrics, and one must surely be Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism and the subject of this dark, bold novel, which is nearly as eccentric as its subject.
In his second novel, Kloss (The Alligators of Abraham, 2012) chooses an unusual style—second-person narration, biblical language—to tell the story of an orphan born to a savage wilderness, his wanderings as a young man, and the visions that resulted in him leading people to what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Kloss riskily re-creates, in grisly close-up, an atmosphere of blood-soaked desperation that is his vision of the settler’s life in early America in order to show how its hardships and horrors might lead to religious fanaticism. That he succeeds to some degree does not make this novel pleasurable reading. It opens in a bewildering horror show of violence, which is like starting Heart of Darkness at its climax. And it goes on from there, with babies dying and bodies rotting beneath suicide ropes, using language and imagery that evoke Cormac McCarthy on an absinthe jag. The second-person narration is difficult at first but becomes appropriate as you slowly realize you’re in the bedazzled mind of a religious fanatic who believes he is hearing signs and being spoken to from on high, so “you” makes sense. But it is also relentless and tiring. When Smith’s story begins to emerge, the remembered outlines of that narrative propel this story forward, but it gets mired in uninteresting relationships (like Smith’s with his associate, Harris) and repetitive scenes with Smith’s long-suffering, faceless wife. There are many passages of powerful writing, but in other places the prose is marred by poor grammar; e.g: “unmoving in the snow you laid, hearing only the sound of her screams.” It's hard work to stay with this narrative.
Fans of McCarthy and filmmaker Terence Malick may enjoy Kloss’ stylistic and tonal experiments here, but for nearly everyone else, this novel is tough going.