Monday, February 1, 2016

Book Review: A Danger to God Himself

In his first published work of fiction, a tale about a Mormon missionary who becomes afflicted with a mental illness, John Draper takes on some heavy subject matter, throws some great characters into the mix, and produces a memorable and admirable novel.
Available in ebook or print from Amazon
In Sedro-Woolley Washington, Elders Kenny Feller and Jared Baserman are caught up in one ward's awkward transition.  It's 1979 and the bigoted Bishop Briskey has been released from his calling because of his opposition to the reversal of the church's policy banning blacks from the priesthood.  Briskey has been replaced by Demetrius Bloodworth, a semi-recently converted black man.

Let's all take a moment to appreciate not only the Dickensian-sounding surname of the new bishop, but also the amusing poignancy of its selection—his religion has finally admitted that his blood is worth the same as any other man's blood.

Jared Baserman, meanwhile, has had a few strange little episodes that have given some people reason to believe that he has a unique power of prophecy.  Although this later turns out to be some kind of psychosis, as the condition escalates, it results in some truly riveting drama in an LDS chapel and eventually spawns a new sect of Mormonism.

It's a fun tale, but what's great about it is the realistic depiction of Mormon culture, which manifests itself as both profound and hilarious.  Though it's evident he did a ton of research, there were a few things about Draper's rendering of Mormonism that I found questionable.  For example, both Elders swear casually.  Around each other, this seems realistic enough, since they know neither one of them is the Peter Priesthood type.  But they also cuss in the presence of church leaders (without reproach, too), which seems like a risk very few missionaries would be willing to take.  Also, one of the characters refers to Gadianton as an apostate, which is not a term I've heard leveled at him before.  I don't think the Book of Mormon gives enough backstory on Gadianton to claim that he was ever a pious man.  Another character basically quotes First Nephi but attributes the principle to Joseph Smith.

Most notably, when Elder Feller eventually decides that the church isn't true, it's the easiest and fastest faith crisis I've ever heard of.  He's certainly had his doubts up to this point, but after President Dewey catches him breaking a pretty important rule, Elder Feller has one conversation with the man and then tells Jerusha:  "I think I'm done with the Church."  Switch flipped.  I realize the point of this novel really isn't to explore Kenny Feller's loss of faith, but I was disappointed by the way it was glossed over.

But enough with the complaints.  Let's get on to the good stuff!  For starters, here's what Elder Kenny Feller has to say on the nature of God:
Growing up in church, we always prayed to Heavenly Father as if He was involved in our lives—imminent, sneaking notes into the knife pocket of your corduroy pants.
I can't say enough how much I love this nostalgic, personal characterization of the Mormon God.  I want to start calling him the God of Knife Pocket Notes instead of the God of Lost Car Keys.  Draper also captures perfectly the struggle to react to awkward or inappropriate moments—when you're still trying to be a good Mormon, but you don't want to be weird about it:
But, back then, standing there with my new junior companion—my greenie—my primary concern was to communicate something non-judgmental yet alarmed. Something that was senior companion material but also made me seem like a normal guy. I think all I marshaled was a pained, equivocal look, like my plumbing was backed up.
It's impossible for me to express just how spot-on this is, at least for me.  Kenny also discusses the strategies of teaching Moroni's Promise to investigators:
It’s actually a great tactic in that it always works, if you’re the missionary. That is, if the investigator does receive an inner glow, then, wham, you can wrench him into the boat. And if he doesn’t feel that warm feeling, well, it’s just an indicator that he wasn’t sincere enough or that his real intent wasn’t real enough. Try again. The answer is never no.
I didn't serve a mission myself, but having tried Moroni's Promise approximately nine thousand three hundred forty-seven times and having heard about the same number of rationalizing explanations insisting that the promise always works whether we realize it or not, I completely agree with these comments as well.

But that's not all.  There's circuitous apologetics about why the priesthood ban was actually a good thing, amusing remarks about how uptight the church is, some hilariously irreverent dialogue, subtle jabs at Mormon members' comparative ignorance of the Bible, and a scene that illustrates how Mormon men especially don't realize how the church is sexist.  There's so much pure Mormonism in here that it's easy to forget that John Draper didn't actually grow up in the church.  Apparently he attended an LDS ward while working on this book, and he must have been filling stacks of composition books with notes.

The story does take a little while to really get going, but at least that time is spent fleshing out the characters.  The setting feels real, the people feel real, the church feels real, and the humor blends flawlessly with the drama and the tragedy and the philosophizing.

As a self-published writer, I try to read a lot of self-published books to support my fellow indie authors.  I think there's a common preconception that self-published or independent works are generally inferior to the products of large publishing houses—a preconception that I try my damnedest not to give anyone more reason to indulge in.  But this novel, refreshingly, is one of the books that makes us look good.  It may be the work of an amateur novelist, but that doesn't mean the work is amateurish.  It's a polished product, and it feels like the passion project that Draper claims it is.

I highly recommend giving this novel a read...and so does the webmistress of Main Street Plaza.

And don't forget there's still four days left to vote for A Danger to God Himself (or my own book, Their Works Shall Be in the Dark, should you be so kind) in this year's Brodie Awards!

No comments:

Post a Comment