THE NARRATOR of “Opposition in All Things,” the seventh story in Shawn Vestal's debut collection, Godforsaken Idaho, is 32 years dead when he wakes up inside the vision of Rulon Warren, the son of a niece he had known when she was just a little girl. Having no idea whether he is an angel or spirit, or whether he has just stumbled into some never-ending purgatory, he attempts to guide Rulon's hand. Rulon, like the dead narrator, is a Mormon. He has just returned to Idaho from the First World War, and he is stricken by intense fear and doubt. The narrator tells us: “[Rulon] worried about his own sin as well, and I was there with him in all of it.” Soon after this, as Rulon prays in his bunk at night, the narrator poses two questions: “What was this life? Where was God's hand?” They are questions that haunt the entire book.
I knew nothing about Vestal when Godforsaken Idaho showed up at my door. I hadn't stumbled across his stories in Tin House or McSweeney's or any of the fine journals where they first appeared. I didn't know that he had been raised Mormon. A cursory search online showed divisive customer reviews of the book, some by people who dismissed it as trashy, others by readers who seemed to be caught off guard by (as best I can tell) the depressing subject matter of the stories. Well, forget trashy. Forget depressing. Godforsaken Idaho is weirdly and wildly funny, a blistering set from a writer with a far-reaching range. In my eyes, it's tuned just right and the sound it makes is ethereal — something like Washington Phillips by way of Denis Johnson.
The title of the collection is a blueprint for its preoccupations: Idaho and Mormonism form the landscape, geographic, emotional and spiritual, upon which the stories play out. In an interview with Jess Walter, Vestal said:
Idaho is so deeply a part of me that I probably don’t even recognize the ways it emerges in my writing. I never set out to write about the state in any direct way — but on some level, I am probably always writing about Idaho, or my childhood and family and everything else that is tied up in Idaho for me. It’s a place I love and a place that drives me crazy and, most of all, a place that I know.
And so it is with his former religion. Vestal continues:
Though I have left the church, Mormonism is my heritage, and using the materials of Mormonism’s stories to write new ones—even stories that might seem heretical to some—became a way of keeping possession of this heritage.
The opening story, “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” also takes place in a banal afterlife. It begins:
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.
Characters eat from their own lives only (in a sort of purgatorial cafeteria). Their age at death is their age forever. The narrator tells us:
There is no peace here. All the trappings of peace, yes, all the silence and emptiness, but those are just shells. If you want peace, you have to find it in the life you left behind.
It's a grim portrait of purposelessness. Relationships that were strained in life remain strained in death. The dead here are stuck hunting for perfect moments to relive, though they often “find it hard to land a single untroubled moment.” The narrator continues: “Every second is crowded with life, with misery and anxiety that just won't be stomped down.” When the narrator finally finds his perfect moment, it's tied up in being alone, smoking back-to-back cigarettes on a bridge over a canyon two weeks after his wife left him, the smell of cow shit in the air, the sound of emptiness overtaking everything.
“About as Fast as This Car Will Go” demonstrates Vestal’s range. It’s a crime story, one of the best I've read this year. In it, a 17-year-old boy winds up robbing houses with his ex-con dad. His aunt, who he has been living with during his father’s prison sentence, is reluctant to let him go back to his old life, but his father wants him, claims him. “I guess I just figured I'd have my boy with me,” his father says. At first, he’s living straight. Then things change. The narrator tells us:
[Dad] started staying out later, and then he vanished for two days. I stayed home, skipping school and waiting. I thought maybe I was already alone and just didn't know it yet, like he'd crashed that Pontiac and died but nobody knew to find me and tell me. I thought if that was true maybe I'd just stay still forever, inside the gray bubble of those days, and stop pretending there were other people for me.
Vestal’s preoccupation with “absent fathers, criminal fathers, [and] regretful fathers” is clear from the outset. The narrator says:
We'd take off in the Pontiac for a week to the podunk Mormon towns around Salt Lake, come back with checkbooks and new clothes and rolls of cash. We'd head to Helena and come back with a trunk load of shotguns to pawn.
They're bonding, coming together through crime. He confides: “I never had a moral qualm, I'm sorry to say. It was too much damn fun.”
“Families Are Forever!,” “Pocket Dog,” and “Godforsaken Idaho” are the stories that will probably test the patience of readers who are turned off by unlikeable narrators. The difficult men who guide these stories are, to crib a line from the narrator of “Families Are Forever!,” deeply “false in [their] bones.” They are solipsistic liars who wish rather than pray. Their promiscuity is rooted in a disconnectedness from all things sacred. The narrator of “Pocket Dog” identifies himself as “a soft, self-indulgent boy,” a pretty representative description of these three men (and many of Vestal's male characters). The narrator of “Godforsaken Idaho” tells us: “I was a stupid child, well into adulthood.” He gorges “on porn and the great books.” When his boss at the 7-Eleven where he works threatens to write him up for tardiness, he says, “Why don't you write this up?” and lifts his ass to fart. But, unfortunately, he can “summon no percussion.” He goes on to say:
Story of my etc. It's disappointing to come so near a high point and miss it — the kind of moment they write country songs about, or epic poems. And then he made a trumpet of his ass.
These characters experience no tiny victories. They're debauched belly floppers, epic screwups. Still, they're wonderfully hilarious in all their sourness. The narrator of “Godforsaken Idaho” watches his landlord have a heart attack and thinks: “I was disgusted — this belonged out of sight, where the rest of us didn't have to see it.” He knocks on a couple of doors for help; when no one is readily available, he goes back to his apartment, pulls the blinds and shuts the lights, and forgets all about it, leaving the man dead in the driveway. It's a horrible scene, and brutally sad, but it’s also laced through with a wickedness that makes a sort of goofy antihero of the narrator.
“Winter Elders” is also a crime story of sorts. A former Mormon, pursued by missionaries, is compelled to an act of violence against them. It's an interesting lead-in to the collection's final triptych, which deals with the mythology and legacy of Mormonism. In “Opposition in All Things,” the dead narrator inhabiting Rulon pushes him violently into eternity. Sara Miller, the protagonist of “Gulls,” is precariously balanced on a precipice of doubt, as crickets attack her family’s farm. And, in the final story, “Diviner,” we meet young treasure-hunter Joseph Smith through the eyes of his future father-in-law. Vestal discussed the influence of Mormonism on his work with Walter, saying:
Like a lot of people who have left a religion, probably, I 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. I wanted to write about doubters, denouncers, heretics.
It's an interesting task he's set out for himself, and it's what gives the book backbone. These stories, in all of their wild variety, are about leaving and disappointment, but they're also about grace and mystery and waiting for the next thing. Vestal knows that without doubt, there is no faith. He knows that doubt fuels imagination. “We want the world transformed,” Barry Hannah once said, regarding the making of fiction. “Pioneer perspective.” Godforsaken Idaho gives us pioneer perspective — both literal and figurative — in spades. Vestal's characters challenge us to think about corruption and deceit and devotion and redemption in provocative new ways.
William Boyle's first novel, Gravesend, is forthcoming from Broken River Books.