Dear Shawn Vestal,

Godforsaken Idaho

Godforsaken Idaho

Godforsaken Idaho became my primer on Mormonism as practiced by folks not running for president. Your stories of missionaries, marriages,

Idaho Potatoes

Idaho Potatoes

ranches, rehab, relatives, robbers, and religion also introduced me to Idaho, a part of the Northwest I’ve never visited. In fact, Idaho itself was once so remote to this New Jersey native transplanted late in life to a Seattle suburb as to seem beyond godforsaken. Sorry, but your native state was never on my radar except when I was buying potatoes.

And Mormonism? I’m a secular Jew with a carefully cultivated ambivalence towards people of any faith who seek to evade modernity, and I was shocked to see how prevalent the followers of LDS are in the Northwest. But their prevalence didn’t

make them interesting; your stories do. Those same stories also took me inside the psyche of midlife males, a species I’ve neglected in much of my own writing.

Aging and often out-of-work Boomers, they didn’t interest me all that much before I read Godforsaken Idaho. Now thanks to your wild imagination, your keen sense of humor, and your accessible, powerful prose, I’m making room in my head for all of these phenomena.

Take Idaho. It’s huge and empty compared to New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the Union. Nobody goes to Jersey for the solitude. But a lot of folks come to the Northwest because they crave seclusion, and many of these wannabe hermits find their way to Idaho. Others are born and raised in The Gem State and, like

many of your characters, feel quite at home driving those long highways from farm or ranch or mine to small town and on and on to forest or mountain. I want to

Middleage 2013

Middleage 2013

write a novel set in Eastern Washington, and it will feature at least one such character from Idaho. He wasn’t from Idaho before I read your book, but now he is. He may even be a lapsed Mormon, a literally godforsaken midlife white guy whose own less than perfect parents and bad habits along with the changing times have conspired to strip him of all that he feels entitled to, a good job, a tolerant family, a paid for house, the possibility of a gracious retirement, and, of course, a fulfilling afterlife.

Your original vision of an unfulfilling afterlife in Godforsaken Idaho’s lead story, “The First Hundred Years Following My Death” opens that tale.  “The food is excellent. The lines are never long. There’s nothing to do with your hands.” This is how the lapsed Mormon who has predeceased his estranged son greets this son when he arrives in the hereafter. This description did not impress the dead son, but it hooked me at once and for good. “It turns out that the

Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven

food is meals you order from your life,” presumably meals that you enjoyed. You stay the age at which you died and eat with those your own age from many historical periods. There is no peace in this odd heaven except what you can find by reliving favorite moments from your own life. Like those meals, these moments don’t always hold up to such close and repeated scrutiny. In fact, “…you find it hard to land in a single untroubled moment.” There is much wit and plenty of pathos here and not a trace of angels or saintly gatekeepers or fire and brimstone. How refreshing! And as a bonus, we meet several of the characters who turn up later in stories all their own.

Rulon, a young vet just home from World War I, suffers guilt for having killed enemy soldiers and for having had sex with a prostitute on his return. Mormon teachings do not guide him through or shield him from the sins inherent in war and prostitution and even masturbation. Killing and all sex outside of marriage are sinful in The Book of Mormon and his guilt gives him no peace. Rulon’s story is narrated by a long dead lapsed Mormon fighting to protest a law forbidding the then polygamous Mormons to vote in Idaho and he was killed by a posse as he fought. This dead man attempts to soothe the younger man’s conscience and guide him to a more active and aggressive stance, but cannot reach him at first. The ending is dramatic and meaningful, especially in view of the troubles we know returning vets face today.

Looking at the Northwest through Mormon eyes changed my perspective on the place and many of the people. Just as not all of us east coast natives share the values and life styles of Manhattanites, so not all Northwesterners embrace the liberal politics, advanced technology, good beer, and better coffee that many Seattleites do. In your stories, characters recall how the early followers of first Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young gradually made their way west fleeing persecution. It’s fascinating to look at America as they see it, as a place like the Middle East where ancient sacred biblical texts can be unearthed, translated, and interpreted, where miracles can occur, where credos can be changed, and where, if you go back far enough, all people are connected by blood.

Pocket Dog

Pocket Dog

Your characters talk like, I suspect, real Idahoans talk. Here’s your dissolute womanizing drunkard in “Pocket Dog” describing an attractive gal shedding her clothes before entering a hot tub.  First he tells us, “I believe firmly in watching such a woman.” And then he treats us to this: “She stepped out of that skirt and bent over, ass up like an autumn doe. . . . and something started flopping inside me like a fish on a riverbank.” “Pocket dog” is not a happy story, but the narrator, telling it after rehab, enlivens it with lines like these. They make me like him even while I disapprove of his drinking, drug use, and cavalier attitude towards women including his grandmother who is determined to get him into treatment. How can you hate a guy who sees the miniature dog belonging to the woman described above and says, “She held a purse in the crook of her arm and from the purse emerged the tiny head of a creature with a furious puff of Einstein hair. Like a rat being born. The rat barked and hung a tongue the color of a pencil eraser. Out here, we’re bound to feel a dog like that is just wrong.”

The next book I write will pry me a little further out of my coastal comfort zone, and, after savoring your wonderful stories, I may be empowered to venture into yours. Thanks for such an inspiring read.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Dear Shawn Vestal,

  1. Oh, my — so many layers. This sounds quite intriguing, a combination of what my guy calls class and crass — lovely writing about not-so-lovely subject matter. Adding it, too, to my TBR list.

  2. Hi Jane, How interesting that you found inspiration for your newest character from this book! It sounds like a great read. I was fortunate enough to spend a year working in Idaho when I was a reporter/anchor, and it changed the way I view life. Coming from outside of Boston, the trip to Idaho was a culture-shock in every way. I remember one of the first stories I did was on a rodeo that had come to town, and featured this sport for kids called “Mutton Bustin.” Ever heard of it? I bet there are YouTube videos. Needless to say, I near had apoplexy watching it! But I learned, it’s just part of the Idaho culture. Idaho taught me a lot. I’m sure it will make a grand addition, even tangentially, to your next book.

    • Thanks for your encouraging words and your confirmation of my sense that there’s lots to explore in Idaho besides potatoes! I will check out “mutton’ bustin” for starters. Having lived in Idaho, you will enjoy Shawn Vestal’s take on it.

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