Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review: Wasatch- Mormon Stories and a Novella

Before picking up this book, my only exposure to Douglas Thayer was his short story “Opening Day,” which you can access for free here. This collection contains some of his previously-unpublished stories, and returns to print others that are described as among his ‘career-best.’ If you’ve never heard of him before, you might be wondering what kind of career we’re talking about here. I was in the same boat, but after Wikipedia told me he’s been referred to as the “Mormon Hemingway” I admit I was intrigued. I decided to take the plunge, and I’m glad I did.

On the face of it, you could say that Thayer is firmly entrenched in telling only one kind of story, as almost all of these selections feature coming of age tales told from the perspective of the Mormon male. But to dismiss the collection on those grounds would be to do the author and the reader a great disservice. There’s considerable range lurking beneath the surface. Whether it’s the magical realism of “Brother Melrose,” or the black comedy of “The Gold Mine,” Thayer explores themes of life and death, survival and forgiveness, faith, doubt, friendship, heroism and more.

Thayer’s Mormon-ness, which is altogether absent in a number of the stories, is doled out by varying degrees in the interior monologue of his characters, rather than explained overtly in sermons and worship services. Sometimes this method gives an air of expository doctrine dropping (as in “Crow Basin” and “Apache Ledges”), but for the most part it is handled deftly- as a backdrop or a motivation for the character action. In fact, those stories that delve for deeper religious meaning (“The Locker Room” and “Fathers and Sons”) are among the most powerful in the collection.

The author has described himself as having “a mind that deals in images.” His straightforward prose certainly conveys those images clearly, and above all, evokes a strong sense of place. The mountains, rivers and elements of Wasatch are maybe more accurately described as characters than as settings. They shape and challenge his protagonists, and in some cases give them their very purpose.

If I were to level one criticism of the writing, it is that Thayer has a strong affinity for leading with dependent clauses. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but when two or three such sentences are grouped together, it can be a little distracting:
Sometimes at night, almost feverish, not wanting to go to bed in my deep, dark room, and not knowing why, I stayed out late. Dressed in Levi’s and low-cut tennis shoes without socks, my T-shirt wadded in my pocket, I rode my bike under the dark summer trees to town. The sidewalks nearly empty, driven by some strange desire to know myself, I rode past the dark store windows to see my reflection flash by.
I should mention that the above excerpt isn’t representative of the whole, but was simply dog-eared by me as a noticeable offender. Overall, his skills as a storyteller should not be left to doubt. Thayer moves effortlessly between backstory and present action in all of his stories, but does so to special effect in his novella “Dolf,” which will have your heart pounding right up until not one, but two final twists knock you squarely between the eyes. It’s like something out of Cormac McCarthy or the very best Louis L’Amour.

His characters are introspective and interesting, and they inhabit a wide range of time periods and settings. He’ll take you from the frontier of the Old West, to Depression era small towns, to modern day settings of all sorts- including hobo camps, national parks, red rock deserts, abandoned mines and ice-fishing reservoirs. You see a Mormon perspective played out against any number of backdrops, but as I said earlier, Thayer is by no means a one-trick pony. I’d be glad to read him again. Check him out. 

*** Update: This Book was awarded the Association for Mormon Letters' award for Short Fiction in 2011 ***


  1. The "Mormon Hemingway"? I can't get over that phrase. "The Mormon Hemingway."

    Who is the "Mormon James Joyce?" And the "Mormon Toni Morrison?"

  2. This topic actually really interests me. I've been operated under the theory that "Mormon Literature" (as in acclaimed literature) didn't really exist. Yet, now I am reading that Thayer's writings (which I had never heard of) are compared to Hemingway, and Willa Cather!?!

    It's interesting that, as a Mormon myself, I've read a fair amount of Jewish literature (Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth for starters), yet have never really read anything that I would call "Mormon Literature."

    The closest I have happened upon would be Wallace Stegner (who wasn't Mormon, but wrote about Salt Lake City and Utah). I love Stegner.

    But Mormon Literature? It exists?


  3. I'm certainly no expert on the subject, but I know there’s a great debate about what would constitute the “Great Mormon Novel.” Some say it’s already been penned, and point to books like Levi Petersen’s The Backslider as proof. Others say it still eludes us, and may not ever come to fruition. They point to ex-mormon authors like Brady Udall as being the closest we can get.

    For his part, Stegner said he thought it would be written by someone who had left the Mormon church, and then come half-way back- whatever that might mean (maybe embracing the culture but not the beliefs? Who knows…)

    All I know, based on my limited experience, is that Thayer’s a good step in the right direction.

  4. Tucker, for more Mormon literature, I recommend Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth.

    Here are my reviews of Mormon literature in 2011.

    And I would not say Brady Udall is "ex-Mormon". He has said in interviews that he does not have a testimony of the Church, but that he still considers himself Mormon.

    1. Thanks, Andrew. I stand corrected on Udall, and stand in awe of your comprehensive reviews. Thank you for dropping in!