061) The Backslider by Levi Peterson, finished June 14
So I finally read Levi Peterson's The Backslider. And unlike other rites of passage (I'm looking at you, Moby Dick) The Backslider exceeded my expectations. Perhaps it had an unfair advantage, given my longstanding (and well documented) ambivalence for rural-Utah fiction. But part of the reason I get frustrated with such fiction is that it's become the Mormon generic, and Mormon fiction has grown well beyond the same old same old. And I want to be clear: I'm not forgiving Levi for writing thirty years ago; I'm forgiving him because this novel is so thoroughly set in its setting that it couldn't be anywhere else with anyone else. It's not a default setting; it's a necessary setting.one-point-five months
Frank Windham (and I see why he's made lists of the best drawn characters in American literature) is undivorceably of early-1950s rural Utah. First, his speech patterns and behaviors and appearance and business are pure modern cowboy. I know such men---they're family. He's a few decades younger than when I knew him, but he's exactly right. Add to that type my own neurotic teenaged self and Frank Windham is someone I know intensely well. And that's ignoring how exquisitely Peterson has drawn him.
In short, the novel deserves its monumental reputation.
It has at least as much sex as you've imagined but probably less swearing, but---spoiler alert---the Cowboy Jesus (who did not appear where I anticipated him) is more redemptive than I imagined. Frank's vision choked me up.(Incidentally, I worry that along with rejecting the hellfire brand of Mormonism we've also lost the visionary aspects of Mormonism. This is not good. We should be having visions more often!) Frank's Cowboy Jesus is real. Consider what Alma says:
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.Only Cowboy Jesus could reach Frank, and so Cowboy Jesus is who comes to Frank. And who frees him from the horrors of his inherited brand of religion.
Cowboy Jesus, more than any other character in the novel, reflects Frank's own self.
The Backslider is more than a great novel with a bunch of sex. It's powerful theology.
May you all have a chance to meet your Jesus.
And may he save you from the hells of your own creation.
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