In which Mormon missionaries take positions, some contrary, dark and violent.
Elder McLeod is a brooding young man with the natural tendencies of a juvenile delinquent; about the first thing we learn about him is that he is inclined to make “a half show of resistance” about all things, not least the work he’s doing. So why is he sweating his way through “the close, crucible heat” of Brazil? Therein hangs part of ex-Mormon writer McIlvain’s smart if anticlimactic yarn of a not-so-quiet American who, on his required mission as a newly minted Mormon “elder,” butts up against a real elder, an older Brazilian named Elder Passos who has very different ideas of how the world works and who’s in charge than McLeod. Passos is earnest and dogged, not inclined to give up. And he loves a good challenge, including the one set before him and his missionary partner by a lively and willing young woman and her much less pliable husband, who, when confronted with the prospect of converting, counters that if she wants to be religious, she should go to Mass more often. There’s more to it than all that, of course, and Josefina—she of the cutoff jeans “and the legs in them”—poses a crisis of conscience for McLeod that will lead to some spirit-shattering moments as he and Passos wrestle like Jacob and the angel. McIlvain, a recent Stegner Fellow, does a fine job of setting up the multifaceted conflict that guides his swiftly paced novel, and if the resolution seems both incomplete and hurried, the writing is assured and often quite funny, as when McLeod, grappling for the Portuguese necessary to acquire the services of a hooker, comes up with a biblical equivalent that has his provider proclaim, happily, “I’m your harlot.”
You won’t look at those young, white-shirted Mormon men on their bicycles in quite the same way again.