Newspaper columnist Shawn Vestal once had something in common with 46,484 Montanans and nearly a third of Idahoans; with 45 percent more Americans in 2010 than in 2000; and with a former presidential candidate. He was Mormon.
Leaving the faith you were raised in cannot be easy, I thought, staring at Vestal's debut short story collection, Godforsaken Idaho. But what was up with the hackle-raising title? I wondered if I was in for nine stories' worth of Mormon-bashing.
Then I opened to the first story, titled "The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death." It begins like this: "The food is excellent. The lines are never long. There's nothing to do with your hands. These are the first things I tell my son. Then we don't talk again for something like two hundred years."
A story narrated by a dead guy? And the first thing this guy wants to say about the afterlife is that he likes the food? Wherever Vestal was headed, the journey suddenly looked entertaining.
It was. Vestal delivers such attention-grabbing beginnings one after another. Here's how "Families are Forever!" begins: "Gina said, 'I'd love to stab you to death with an ice pick. Like four hundred times.' She feigned delicate stabs. 'Or a hatpin.'"
They're addictive, Vestal's beginnings. Like pretzels or, if you want to be regionally appropriate, french fries with fry sauce. Vestal likes disagreeable narrators and resolutionless endings. I don't. But those tasty beginnings kept luring me away from my irritation, and in the end there was plenty in these stories to feast on.
I learned to relish Vestal's taste for absurdity. Yes, the character trying to welcome his son to the afterlife talks a lot about the food. Eats a lot of it, too. He's also not Vestal's only dead narrator.
I admired how with each surprise and seeming contradiction Vestal's characters become more bitingly real. For instance, Gina, the bright, independent girl who amuses herself brainstorming creative ways to kill her boyfriend, should dump the guy. She knows he's morally bankrupt. Instead, his betrayals, small and large, are perversely pleasing to her. Two months after my first read of that story, I'm still arguing with her.
Most satisfying of all was Vestal's ability to render a single, perfect detail against the vast canvas of the unsaid. In the story "Opposition in All Things," a character named Rulon has his first, deeply conflicted sexual experience with a young prostitute, about which Vestal says only this: "Afterward, Rulon was not quite sure what had happened between themcould not picture the way their bodies had come together. He knew only the surge of intensity that wrapped his hips and shot up his spine."
Like Rulon, many of Vestal's characters are Mormon. Church founder Joseph Smith even appears in two stories. But not only is there no Mormon-bashing in these stories, Mormonism is not Vestal's theme. It's merely his lens, just as Philip Roth and Michael Chabon employ the lenses of cultural and religious Judaism.
But then what is Vestal's theme? Thumbing pages, I was struck by a passage from a chilling story called "Winter Elders," about a former Mormon named Bradshaw who has just become a father.
"When the boy was born Bradshaw kept waiting for it to happen," he writes. "The flash of light. The surge of joy. Some brightness shining through the visible world. He had been so sure this would be itthe moment that he felt what everyone else seemed to feel, what his mother felt, what all the other Mormons felt, what people in other churches felt, what even people like Cheryl felt, people who were hostile to the very idea of religion: some spirit in the material. The thing behind the thing."
Vestal, generally compassionate toward his characters, has little for those who, failing to find "the thing behind the thing," decide there isn't one. And isn't that, I thoughtadding his book to my "keeper" pilehis unifying thread? Perhaps it also explains the title. Faith without doubt, Vestal seems to say, is absurd. Doubt lies at the center of the human condition. But so does absurdity, and in the end, in Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho, what kills the soul isn't faith, doubt or absurdity. It's emptiness.