By Melody Nixon
There is a discomfort in realizing books can still illuminate prejudices you didn’t know you had. Shawn Vestal’s writing has made it into McSweeney’s, American Short Fiction and Tin House among others – all reliable qualifications – but in his energetic, highly imaginative fiction, Vestal draws heavily on his upbringing in the Mormon faith, and he writes about places that are geographically outside my range of consciousness. My knowledge of Mormonism is at best minimal, informed by stereotypes: large smiley families, sister-wives, and pointy steeples. My single frame of reference for Idaho is a photo of a cowboy riding a horse in a brightly lit arena, emailed to me by an acquaintance in 2010 with the subject line “Saturday night in Idaho.” Though I like to think of myself as someone eager to explore experiences outside my own, I’ll admit that when I began reading Godforsaken Idaho, Vestal’s debut story collection, disquiet initially trumped enthusiasm.
But within a few reluctantly-turned pages, I was taken in by the small worlds Vestal has created, by the visual and cultural cues that I had assumed would bore me – the painting of “a man with a long white beard, hands folded in prayer, sitting before a loaf of bread,” the clean living rooms with “pictures of Mormon temples on the walls.” I was captivated by the merging of realism and the boldly fantastical, deepened by Vestal’s strong intellectual inquiry and vivid characterization.
Vestal’s own faith lapsed as he was readying to leave his hometown of Gooding, Idaho. When he left the Mormon Church he was “focused for a long time on the hypocrisy of the faithful and the failures of religion. But that is such a standard, clichéd pose – as if only the faithful are hypocritical or ignorant or deluded or weak.” Through the stories in this collection, says Vestal, he “wanted to write about doubters, denouncers, heretics” as well as the contradictions in people of faith.
The collection is set largely in Idaho, in unremarkable cities like Boise and tiny towns like Franklin. Vestal grew up in a large, religious family in southern Idaho, and he says the place is “so deeply a part of me that I probably don’t even recognize the ways it emerges in my writing.” Godforsaken Idaho, though, is not so much a reference to the state as it is a metaphor for “a kind of existential wasteland,” as Vestal describes it: “a stage upon which these characters must try to grapple with their own lives in an absence of what they might want or hope for, in terms of help from on high.”
In “Opposition in All Things,” the longest story in the collection, we meet Rulon and the town of Franklin. Rulon is haunted by a distant ancestor, his great uncle John, who has been brought out of the black and Kingdom-less night of death to inhabit his great nephew, like an unwilling guardian angel. Observing the tedium of his nephew’s life, John prompts Rulon to destroy his small town, to “make a fire in the night,” to be “a force against, an opponent.”
“Opposition in All Things” at times indulges in repetition (such as the notion that Rulon sees himself as a sinner unable “to erase his wickedness”), but it shows the force of ideas at play in Vestal’s work: a biblical notion – that there must be “opposition in all things – without evil, there can be no good” – is taken to its logical limit. Over and over again in this collection, we see conventional wisdom twisted brilliantly back on itself to reveal its underside, sometimes hollow, sometimes playful, but always somehow different from its typically received meaning. Mantras like “Families are forever,” “You only live once,” “Without darkness there can be no light, without evil, no good,” and “Our ancestors guide us” are taken to their extremes and then laid bare.
A further example is the opening story, “The First Several Hundred Years Following my Death,” in which Vestal creates a version of the afterlife that has more in common with Beckett than with The Book of Mormon (which otherwise features heavily in the stories): families are reunited with one another as each member dies, meaning 40-year-old parents are visited by their 93-year-old children, and great-great-great-grandparents sit down at the dinner table with the great-great-great-grandchildren they never knew in life. The simple idea, which is such a common part of daily American, Christian life – that families are the bedrock of society, that they are “forever,” even reunited in heaven – is rendered absurd by being taken completely seriously. Vestal reframes the afterlife as a reflection of lived life, but with families lost in the expanse of time and without a way to create a sense of community or intimate identity. As Vestal states: “Instead of a life focused on eternity, it’s an eternity focused on a life.”
Not just guided by ideas, the stories in Godforsaken Idaho are sprightful and imaginative, quirky, at times odd, employing a modern register that places them firmly within the canon of contemporary American literary fiction. The link to the canon is especially evident in the way the writer presents us with the “despicable white male” main character and asks us to relate to him.
Vestal’s protagonists are haunted, stumbling, confused, and often real bastards, who either cannot find a way to match their good intentions with actions, or they do their best for short periods but quickly retreat into anger and defensiveness. As Vestal says: “Absent fathers, criminal fathers, regretful fathers – they’re everywhere in my fiction, asserting themselves where I had not meant for them to be.” Brad from “Families are Forever” is the most well-rendered asshole, whose deceitfulness is pitiable, and who falls into the camp of being unable to act honorably, even when he so desires: “I thought I should do something, and I felt pressed by the fact that I would most likely do nothing. Couldn’t I be someone else, for once?”
Generally Brad and the other protagonists’ struggles to make sense of how to live are infused with a visceral sense of pain and given weight by the cascade of mistakes they make, along with the realistically portrayed and conflicting emotions that drive them. Vestal is generally not proffering social commentary; rather, Godforsaken Idaho offers intensely internal character explorations, portraits of individuals trapped within and wrestling with the limits of their own prefigured frameworks for viewing the world. There is a sort of fundamental resolution that has carried each of them to the point of crisis (or burning lack of crisis), and a disturbing inevitability to the way their lives then play out.
Hatred of or disrespect for women lies beneath so many of the male characters’ interactions with them. Rulon is implored by his great uncle to “simply take Ann. Overpower her. Embrace her.” In “Pocket Dog” Simon uses women to quell his own sense of purposelessness, giving them descriptors rather than names, stereotypically using them, “bleary faced and no longer attractive . . . ‘Look, are we going to fuck or are we going to sit around blabbing?'” The resistance I felt to these anti-female characters is alleviated – at least after the first story – by the quality of depravity given to their womanizing, and the fact that the stories do not celebrate misogyny: women are not used as cleansers or purifiers for the male spirit, tools for personal transformation. Rather, Vestal’s bigoted male characters all tend to end up fucking up their lives, and the way they view women is one of the several symptoms of their confusion and failure.
“I do think that there is a certain particular strain of male certitude,” says Vestal, “of absolute trust in yourself and your ideas that is based on an antagonism toward others and other ideas.” This finds expression in religion, and “arguments about good-and-evil, and . . . reaches a kind of logical, or illogical, conclusion in violence.” Vestal almost always marches his dogmatic characters towards some sort of bloody endpoint. “This hostile dynamic,” he says “seems pertinent to men, to the West, to human history.”
With this collection, Vestal has emerged from a long period of publishing only journalism and struggling to get his fiction onto the main stage. In college he intended to become a writer and study English, but he left the University of Idaho before receiving his degree, then went on to write for newspapers. It wasn’t until, years later, with changes in the print media industry and layoffs, Vestal reconsidered the writing life beyond journalism. He enrolled in Eastern Washington University’s MFA program – where he now teaches creative writing – and after twenty years of writing fiction in his spare time he received the validation of publication. His is a story of perseverance and writer-self-preservation.
Like the teenage boy in “About As Fast As This Car Will Go,” Vestal’s own father was jailed when Vestal was a child. His father was a businessman and leader in the community, who turned to crime when he hit financial difficulty. But in an interview with Jess Walter, Vestal says that the events of his own life have not made it into this, or other stories: “My father committed different crimes, and my family situation is much, much different, and I – crucially, I’d like to think – did not follow him into a life of crime. So far.” Vestal goes on to say:
“I think I am probably drawn to [these characters] because they are versions of myself, or exaggerations of my worst tendencies – hyperbolized expressions of my own limited perch on life. Regretful and confused – that seems to me like the basic condition.”
While the honesty of Vestal’s characterization is a vital element of his writing, his nuanced exploration of the impacts of faith is what gives his fiction its niche. The ultimate question the collection left me with was this: what does it mean for fiction to make real life seem subsidiary, less permanent, than the spiritual afterlife? This is a notion familiar to all Christians. In Vestal’s work there isn’t a reward, some ecstatic glory of closeness to God. There is, though, a foreverness, and the life on earth is shown to be the temporary one. Perhaps in response to this there is a time-honored focus on the power of the everyday, in Vestal’s fiction – on not turning away from the mundane, or losing sight of its pleasures in the pursuit of greater glory. Vestal ends the collection with the lines, “And yet I am happy to be here, somewhat. I had rather be near her than not.” There’s still a qualifier – “somewhat” – that brings the optimism down a notch, but ultimately this rejection of any promise of better things beyond this life is a tentative resolution to live fully on earth.
It’s an understatement to say the central theme and place of Shawn Vestal’s new collection lies outside my range of natural interest, but I didn’t understand why until I hunkered down with its pages. As an unknown world was laid bare, I realized I’d grown up with a perception that Mormons, those “other” Christians, are somehow off-track, that their pointy steeples and large families belie a strangeness that isn’t safe. I had dismissed Mormonism as a peculiarity that had little to offer an agnostic liberal like myself who didn’t want children, and disliked long skirts. Yet the way Vestal embraces so fully as subject matter the faith he was raised in – and, in deconstructing it, does not shy away from the richness of its effects on the psyche – transforms questions of religion into genuinely interesting fiction. His short stories showcase an inventive investigation into the inescapable human drive for signposts and meaning.
Melody Nixon is New Zealand-born writer living in New York City. She is the Interviews Editor for The Common, and the Founding Editor of Apogee, a literary journal dedicated to work by writers of color and work that explores issues of identity, race and writing from the margins.
Photo credits: D. Garding