In his marvelous short story American Trinity, David Pace brings to life the religious Mormon legend of the Three Nephites, an apocryphal tradition about ancient disciples whom LDS members claim have interceded and helped them in various situations. The scribe, Zedekiah, is debating a fellow disciple about their spiritual calling and the power of telling a story. Zedekiah says, “Maybe the reason people don’t try to solve their problems—to really transform—is that they sense that for you there’s nothing outside your silly standards. Not even their own experience, for heaven’s sake.”
It is a subtle yet deeply devastating critique about modern Mormonism and church leaders who fail repeatedly to articulate a strange yet unique faith in humanist terms.
A few moments later, when the other disciple reminds Zedekiah of Jesus’ directive to bring souls to the Christ, the scribe responds, “But I don’t remember what it meant to me. Not really. And maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Maybe that creates an opportunity for us to redefine what it means. To tailor it to the circumstances, to the individual.”
In his new novel published by Signature Books, Dream House on Golan Drive, Pace channels Zedekiah’s character in a story that begins 40 years ago in Provo and centers on Riley Hartley, a Mormon boy in a large family. As the story expands into the 1980s, Riley, now a young man, is deeply conflicted about his faith. There are failed marriages and relationships, the trials of a young woman who comes to live with the family because of a personal revelation, disappointment about his father who is a rising star in the church as a potential general authority, and frustration about whether true salvation would ever be possible within the confessional confines of Mormonism.
Pace’s book is a magnificent example of what is possible in the Utah Enlightenment, especially among writers who transcend the conventional boundaries of their Mormon identities (whether as current or former members). Its publication is timely because currently the substantial core of LDS doctrine and its recent pronouncements of faith and practice ring hollow persistently.
Reading Pace’s novel brings to mind Joseph Campbell’s astute observation: “Every mythology, every religion is true in this sense [once it is liberated from its cultural prison], it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery. But when it gets stuck to the metaphor, then you’re in trouble.” The LDS church is fumbling notoriously to extricate itself from its long self-inflicted sentence of cultural imprisonment. The church’s messages about cherished Mormon values of perfectionism in family and faith grow thinner in each iteration for a community of believers that is culturally enlightened and seeks meaning in humanistic traditions. And, it has been so for a long time. To wit: Riley’s frustration with the messages of the family patriarch (Gus Hartley) in the novel.
Pace leavens his narrative with an authentic, empathetic voice that appeals equally to Mormon and non-Mormon readers alike. He is scrupulously conscientious about never letting the book take on an insider’s tone. There are humorous, some naturally occurring comical moments. Foreshadowing is evident throughout, as the epiphany grows organically in depth and power – the emotional punch exposed as it is subtle and elegantly nuanced. The sense of this unique, strange place of Utah and Mormonism is elucidated with conviction and accuracy.
The story opens with a tableau of the typically large Mormon brood headed by a deeply committed father and mother who try heroically for the perfectionism that is the prescribed objective for every LDS household. The family has recently moved into a larger house that previously would have been unaffordable but still the family endures modest economic means. The mother (Joan) is a former beauty queen who now bakes bread at home in order to make the household budget stretch as far as reasonable. The father (Gus) sells insurance but he directs most of his time toward church affairs, which includes writing a book for fellow Mormons, an interesting development in the story. The mother is rarely without a moment for herself. In addition to tending to the large family, she offers dance lessons in her home to help augment the household income. Gus aspires to rise in the ranks of church leadership. Not surprisingly, he takes every LDS routine with sobering seriousness – right down to the Family Home Evening lesson.
Riley is 11 when the story begins. There are seven siblings and soon an eighth will be born. The boy is intrigued by the arrival of Lucy, who is 10 years older than him and was treated for heroin addiction. Her parents had cut off ties when she announced her intentions of joining the Mormon faith. Zedekiah, the narrator, says:
“Despite her conversion and removal to the colorless but safer city of Provo, she still had, at twenty-one, the breezy candor that made her the most exciting person in Gus’s ever-growing coterie of followers. She moved in because, she explained in a trembling voice one night, she had had a revelation and the SPIRIT had told her that, for some reason, she was to live with Bishop Hartley, the man who was fast gaining a reputation as a spiritual giant among the Latter-day Saints.”
Riley’s intellectual curiosity is bursting through not only in his quest to comprehend his faith and overcome the colorless environment of his community but also to expand his vocabulary and to decipher the code words and phrases of adulthood. He envies his older sisters, including Candace who is just a couple of years older but “seemed to be more in the know.”
It is evident early on that this narrator’s assignment – the ancient Nephite disciple – is to prevent Riley from crossing over the symbolic “veil” prematurely. “The kid reminds me of myself at that age, although I was born two millennia earlier,” he says at one point.
Riley’s earliest adolescent crisis occurs when an LDS bishop learns that he and several other boys have been exploring their sexual curiosities. When confronted by the bishop, Riley confesses everything, which also has caused problems for his gay friend (Paris):
“You just told him about the whole thing, just like that?” asked Paris plaintively. “I had to,” Riley said, looking down at the grass that blurred by the slow motion of his swinging on the monkey bar. “What else could I have done?”
It is an embarrassing, awkward scene for Riley, who can barely abide listening to his mother discuss sex. Pace sketches a scene that undoubtedly would be painful for any male teen:
“Ever since Riley asked Gus a question about sex and Gus had sketched out a picture of horses on the back of a manila folder, Riley had given up asking his father anything about the dark embers of stirring manhood. Gus was equally happy not to have to talk to his son about the topic.
“Riley sat stone-faced like the prophet Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail.”
Indeed, of all the people in the Hartley household, it is Lucy, the recent convert, who challenges Riley most on trying to comprehend their Mormon identity. She is convinced of the church’s foundations as true and she is grateful for finding his family:
“Every time I wonder if the gospel is … a hoax,” the word taking her breath and causing Riley’s heart to pound, “I try to imagine what it would be like without it. There is a feeling of belonging I can’t get anywhere else. I know you and your family aren’t going to give up on me.”
Riley is moved by the intense, visceral expressions of Lucy’s faith. They are not the measured, guarded, carefully scripted expressions of his father. Riley dissects his father’s profession of faith as a clinician might do. He times the length of his father’s prayers – once, nine minutes. He takes note of his father’s use of “extravagant” words such as “similitude.” The ancient scribe, as we learned in American Trinity, had transcribed old tales from the worn parchments infusing the accounts with the requisite miracles. Now, in the novel, the eternal humanist tells the reader:
How strange that every book and every sermon – every person’s speech – was comprised of the same words in a different order, from the prophet’s sermons to a prostitute’s proposal. Everyone drew from the same lexicon. Something as profound as Othello was made up of a string of words like the ones his father used.
Gus struggles to answer his son’s most penetrating questions with barely a modicum of enlightening spiritual perspective. When one of his sisters joins a polygamous home, Riley tries to make sense of his father’s explanation: “She’s convinced this is a higher order of marriage.” Surely, in the young boy’s mind, there had to be something more than words or phrases that could be lifted from an ecclesiastical manual of policies and procedures:
Riley couldn’t imagine what higher order there could be other than the one his family was currently living. How many more commandments could there be? Already it seemed everything you might actually want to do was taboo, but to think that there were other people living by other rules, and that … it was okay. It seemed to him his life ended when he was baptized and told he would be held accountable for his actions. What other lifestyle could there be?
Riley and his brother set out to find their sister and encounter Baines the polygamist, who wastes little time castigating the modern faith: “For all the talk around here about our heroic past, not many folks have any idea what their ancestors were like. So that’s my question, Brother Hartley. How much do you know?” Calling the leaders “nervous little spaniels, chasing after approval and pissing on the floor,” Baines rattles Riley, making it plain and stark how the church the boy identifies has failed to live up to its origins: “The church gave up a kingdom bigger than the Republic of Texas for this pathetic little square, even Wyoming taking a bite out of it?”
By the time Riley graduates high school, he still cannot envision his life ever being disengaged from Mormonism but his internal questions are burning brighter than ever. He is heartened at least momentarily by Lucy’s rock-solid belief that the church is the only comprehensible institution in a chaotic, perplexing world. Lucy tells Riley how lucky he is to have been born in “a forever family out of all the spirits waiting in the pre-existence for their chance to get a mortal body.” But, as Zedekiah explains, “What lay outside of THE GOSPEL was unimaginable. How did people get through their lives without knowing they were in the true church?”
In young adulthood and in a world far from the insulated, highly regulated surroundings of Provo, Riley’s tests of faith become more numerous and daunting. Riley’s mission experience is a dud: “One tenth of his life, a full tithe, had slipped away with nothing to show for it.” He was in White Plains, New York, which Pace describes with smart concision – “an area smitten not with evangelical Christianity, the bane of missionaries, but with lapsed Catholics and polite Rotarians.”
Paris, his childhood friend, is fading fast as AIDS ravages his body. Riley visits him in the hospital, an impressively rendered scene in Pace’s writing. It brings to mind a line Zedekiah speaks in the earlier American Trinity short story, when he explains why the span of life is expressed so beautifully in theater. He says, “What counts is not so much what happens, but the arc of what happens between curtain rise and curtain fall.” And, in the novel, he tells the reader:
Riley wasn’t sure why he’d asked the question about Paris’s erotic preferences. It didn’t matter. And it didn’t matter that his friend had once been in love with him either. There was something otherworldly about Paris as he lay there, gaunt and coughing, making his way slowly to the other side of the VEIL. Riley admired that at least his friend knew where he stood.
The schism in Riley’s faith grows larger and deeper – the inevitable path toward becoming a Jack Mormon and “indulg[ing] in all of Jack’s privileges – drinking, swearing, ten percent more in disposable cash, his Sundays off.” Lucy visits his parents to share a personal revelation and to gain their support and counsel. When she joined the Hartley household, she was content to be obedient, unconditionally impressed with the doctrine of her new faith. Now, her questions demand more substantial answers. She becomes the “confident debater,” disappointed at the cool, legal, clinical responses and tone being offered up by the Hartleys. Joan says little more than the necessity of blinding unwavering obedience to the church leaders. Gus uses a tone that resembles, as the narrator explains in a brutalizing candid observation, “lecturing at a Know Your Religion venue or hyping Silver Rain bacteriostatic soap to a roomful of potential distributors.”
Riley learns later the detail of her encounter (the last she will have) from his parents, and the narrator picks it up:
Sometimes the questions discharge in his mind in the form of a half-scream. “Couldn’t you have intimated that the system is sometimes flawed, that it’s not always one’s own inadequacy, one’s lack of faith?”
Riley’s spiritual crisis becomes a full-fledged ambush, as the book’s pace quickens in the closing act. Some of the novel’s finest writing comes in the literary curtain call.
Dream House on Golan Drive is an important novel that deserves the serious attention of any reader, regardless of connection to Mormonism or to any other faith. It is recommended especially for those who are trying to reconcile their spiritual conscience with a church whose decisions and public actions not only have triggered deep reservations about their community but also who see their own experience of family love and life as quintessentially superior in their spiritual and faith identity as a Mormon.
In American Trinity, Zedekiah says, “I think there are worse things than fudging history. Like not having a history worth reading at all.” Campbell also said that we need myth to learn “how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” In other words, there is no reason to wait for entering the celestial realm in order for one to find his or her own true consciousness – the unmistakable joy of being fully aware of one’s inner self. The point is to have, as Campbell said, “as much as you can of this experience while you’re alive.”
Pace has published in Alligator Juniper, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, ellipsis, Phone Fiction, Quarterly West, and Sunstone. Winner of Association for Mormon Letters and Dialogue Foundation Best Short Awards, Pace also is the literary editor of 15 Bytes magazine.