Sunday, March 21, 2010
Book #44: No Going Back (Whitney Book 24)
Author: Jonathan Langford
This is my off-the-cuff, "first impressions" review for No Going Back, as opposed to the more in-depth review that I'll write once I've finished the last six books (if the Whitneys were a marathon, I'd be at the "hitting the wall" point of reading now), so this is the best I can do until the last page is turned.
As I think of what it means to be a Mormon writer, the thing I keep coming back to is writing about religion and culture in a meaningful way. Yes, of course there can be writers who are Mormons who write about things other than their religious experiences, but I relish reading books by Mormon writers, writing about Mormon experiences.
According to that definition, No Going Back is a very Mormon book. Paul is fifteen, working toward his Eagle Scout award, a good kid, a seminary attendee, a faithful member of his teachers' quorum, a normal kind of guy who likes chips and salsa and Super Smash Bros Melee. He's also gay. Just before the beginning of his sophomore year, he comes out to his best friend, Chad, his bishop's son. Chad is surprised and freaked out by the revelation, which sets off a whole year of Paul trying to reconcile his desire to be a good member of the church, to be a boy who wants to go on a mission and raise a family, with the undeniable fact that he'll always be attracted to guys instead of girls. It's a hard year for Paul as he finds prejudice and gossip and opposition within both the church community and the gay community at his high school.
There were things about No Going Back that bugged me. The way that Paul sees the world around him understandably changes during the year chronicled in the book, and we also see a paradigm shift in the viewpoint of Richard, Paul's bishop and Chad's dad. When Paul comes to him to tell him that he's gay, Richard seems unsure of how to handle the news, hesitant about whether he's being too hard-line or going too soft. I liked the dialogue between Richard and Paul and their relationship, especially as it related to Chad. But there's a whole side story going on in the book where Sandy, Richard's wife, has a hard time accepting Richard's calling as the bishop and the time it requires him to be gone from the family. While I always tend to roll my eyes at the "and she never complained" saintism that's often attributed to the wives of our leaders, and I appreciated that Langford showed that Sandy felt resentful of the calling, it almost felt like that aspect of the story deserved its own place, instead of lumping it in with the main narrative. It didn't add to Paul's story at all and felt distracting. Furthermore, the book is set in 2003/2004 in Oregon, during which time a referendum about gay marriage was taking place in the state. For all of the intentional setting during that time period (instead of making the book just in the more nebulous "present time") it feels like Langford doesn't do enough to establish the effect of the campaigning and the voting on Paul's experience. I kept expecting something to happen between Paul and Sandy after Sandy decided to work on getting people to sign petitions against gay marriage, but it never happens. Langford also tends to focus a little bit too much on some of the "setting the scene" details that could have been left out. He mentions chips and salsa a lot, then names of specific video games more times than I can count, and goes on an extended talk about the merits of Creed vs. other bands of 2003 that I kept expecting to come back into the narrative somewhere but it didn't.
For all of the minor criticisms, I still really liked the book. In so many of the books I've read for the awards so far, the Mormon characters seem sanitized, as if they've undergone a good, hot scrubbing before being sent off from central casting. Langford's Mormons are the Mormons I know: they're crusty, they complain about their husbands' callings, they swear, they get depressed, they gossip; they're not trying to make a statement about who Mormons are or should be, they just are. I'm sure that some readers will look at the book, and if they're not put off by the idea of reading about a faithful gay Mormon teenager, then they'll be put off by the other characters and their faults. But I thought that was the best part of the book.
When I read No Going Back, I guess I was doing a little bit of worrying about how we come as Mormons come off in the novel too, but not because Chad has to bite his tongue so he doesn't say the f-word. Instead, I know that No Going Back is eventually going to be seen as a product of a time. It's a book that's relevant today, but I'm not sure how relevant it will be in ten or twenty or fifty years. I cringed when Richard talked to Charles, his father-in-law, about Paul's situation, because I was embarrassed to be associated with the thinly-veiled homophobia Charles spouted. Langford doesn't shrink from showing the potentially embarrassing and damaging things we do and say to each other in the church as a result of our church's stand on homosexuality. No Going Back touched a nerve with me, and I'm sure it will touch a nerve with all of its readers, no matter where they fall in their relationship to homosexuality and church policy. But sometimes touching a nerve is a good thing, as I think it is in the case of this novel.