A Rascal By Nature, A Christian by Yearning: A Mormon Autobiography by Levi Peterson.
Peterson writes: “I don’t recall weighing whether ther might be an audience for my life’s story. I simply wanted to write it.” And thus the problem: there are strands of interesting material here for several different books (a generic autobiography, a psychobiography, an intellectual biography, a writer’s history, a wilderness journal) that aren’t integrated. Readers interested in the background to his fiction will be at least as irritated by irrelevant material as they are thrilled by his lengthy reflections on his work, while readers looking for insights into his “vexed and vexing relationship with Mormonism” may tear their hair out over passages like this one:
I felt sharply the deep duplicity of my life–my possession of distinctly different personas in conservative and liberal environments, and wondered again how I could bridge the two worlds without being insane, and feeling again it is precisely because I do bridge them that I’m not insane.
And then, after nothing more than a paragraph break, this:
In May 1994 I bought a new electric-blue Ford Ranger pickup with a sluggish four-cylinder engine and a five-speed conventional transmission. As it turned out, I would own this vehicle for ten years to the day. The vinyl cover on the bench seat cracked early . . .
I doubt that I’m the only reader who wishes that the statement about conflicting personas had gotten a little more development even at the cost of slighting the next segment of Peterson’s automotive history. His curious relationship with the institutional church (he was devastated at the thought of excommunication but likes coffee “mostly because it is a convenient sin. It is a very handy, inexpensive way to stay out of harmony with your church.”) is something that I kept patiently waiting for him to explore in some detail, but he never did. He does make several snide-sounding comments about the Church. On the sacrament prayers: “Apparently, God will not sanctify the tokens of redemption unless you get the words just right.” On eternity with his non-LDS wife: “God will not be so petty and mean-spirited as to deny those who have loved each other in mortality to continue their love in immortality. It is love that sanctifies and seals a relationship, not a ritual conducted before an altar made by human beings.” While these sentiments deserve comment on quite a few levels, I’ll restrict myself to the irony: for someone who sees himself as a ‘loyal dissenter’ ministering to the marginalia of Mormonism, he must realize how grossly unsatisfactory two sentences are for dismissing the capstone of Mormon theology. Some readers will also be put off by the depth of his exploration of his sexual history, although he does offer an interesting apologia for this near the end of the book. Nonetheless, Peterson is a fabulous storyteller who made me actually care about his mother’s tumultuous first marriage and his ancestral connection to Mormon history. For the reader who can tolerate unexplored caves (“a fierce, proud grief lies at the core of the Mormon identity, cemented there by the hardships, smothered aspirations, and truncated lives of our pioneer ancestors”), this will be an interesting book. But for those who want more fleshing out, this will be a frustrating read.