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Friday, January 2, 2015

Review: 'Godforsaken Idaho'

Godforsaken Idaho
By Shawn Vestal
Literary fiction short stories
April 2013
Little A / New Harvest
ISBN: 978-0544027763

From a man who has been dead for hundreds of years, trying to capture whole days or moments that made him feel vibrantly alive, to the man who loses his only daughter to fast-talking, looking-in-his-hat Joseph Smith, the men in Shawn Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho both embody and rail against the two things that one of them says turn the world -- greed and vanity.

The stories in Godforsaken Idaho, which this fall won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction, display an array of characters in settings that range from an eternal cafeteria, which is the bleakest version of heaven around, to the living room of an angry landlord whose heart gave up on him out on the street.

That cafeteria is in the opening story, "The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death", a story that brings to mind the fantastical stories in George Saunders's brilliant Tenth of December. The narrator talks in a matter-of-fact way about how whatever you can imagine is what you experience again in this version of an afterlife. But the only things you can experience now are things that you have already experienced. Food, for example, is only food that you remember eating. You can spend as long or as little as you like reliving certain times, certain moments.

Seeking out the memories worth going over again wears thin soon. When his ex-wife arrives, he talks to her. He talks to his son, who died at a much older age and who doesn't want much to do with a dad who left when he was young. Trying to gather a nuclear family for a meal in that cafeteria leads to complications that he didn't envision. What the narrator realizes is that:
If you want peace, you have to find it in the life you left behind.
But most of Vestal's characters are not interested in peace. They are restless, they don't believe in anything much, they expect disappointment and are not surprised when any of them make sure that disappointment is what they get. And yet. And yet.

Even in the bleakest parts of the greyest stories in this collection, there are moments that are so clear-eyed "along the trail to Godforsaken Idaho", as it is put in one story, that ground the reader in the experiences of the characters. Such is the case of a new father, who realizes when his baby son runs a fever that "he had become something else entirely, a new being who would only exist as long as his son existed".

Some of the characters, or those who may be the same characters or not but who have the same name, appear in different stories. The father in the first story is a boy in the second, for example. Many of the stories are set in or around Gooding, Idaho, a town of less than 4,000 located between Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho, which is Vestal's hometown.

He was raised Mormon, later leaving the faith, and the history and culture is reflected in many of his stories. But as he said in this Oregon Public Broadcasting interview, he did not set out to write stories about Mormonism. It's part of the prism through which he looks at the world because it's part of how he became who he is.

Bradshaw, that new father in "Winter Elders", left the church years ago but they won't leave him alone. Two elders appear at his door, continuing to show up as the snow piles higher. The reader doesn't need details about why or how Bradshaw left; it's in the way he views these men, especially the more dominant one:
Pope smiled patiently at Bradshaw, lips pressed hammily together. It was the smile of every man he had met in church, the bishops and first counselors and stake presidents, the benevolent mask, the put-on solemnity, the utter falseness. It was the smile of the men who brought boxes of food when Bradshaw was a teenager and his father wasn't working, the canned meat and bricks of cheese. The men who prayed for his family. Bradshaw's father would disappear, leaving him and his mother to kneel with the men.
Those men are in leadership in any faith, and it's easy to see how they could steer a hurting boy away from their institution.

The inability to be able to rely on faith affects Rulon Warren, who has the same last name as the other wandering elder in "Winter Elders" and whose story is told by the spirit of another man who inhabits his body. "Opposition in All Things" describes how Warren wants to terrify his fellow church members after he returns from the Good War and the men who have not seen other men killed want to congratulate him. The other man inside Warren went off the deep end and was killed by his erstwhile brethren. This unsettling story is a strong example of how Vestal's men do not believe in more than a church. They struggle to believe in themselves.

It's the same for Hale, the father in "The Diviner" who loses his daughter to Smith:
We do not live in the same world, my neighbors and I. They live in a world of codes and secrets and the hope that all will be understood, and I live in the world where bafflement and mystery are but the foundation and the condition.
And later:
How shall I understand our world when it becomes absurd, O Lord?
When greed and vanity overcome, what Hale discovers is that belief is not what matters. What matters is being together. It's that, rather than a faith system, that gives any of Vestal's men the power to go on. It's what they believe in.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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