reviews – Dancing Naked
The Bloomsbury Review, Jeff Metcalf
There is nothing subtle about Robert Van Wagoner’s first novel, Dancing Naked, nothing at all. Released in October by Signature Press, a small publishing house known and respected for its promotion of scholarly work critical of Mormon history, the novel has already caused a great deal of local controversy. Van Wagoner, himself a former Mormon missionary and practicing Mormon, was warned by church authorities that, because of the complaints they’d received from church members attending his reading, they would be watching him closely. Van Wagoner, who now resides in Concrete, Washington, with his wife and two children, finds the criticism predictable but bristles at the notion that this work is anti-Mormon. Such attacks on Dancing Naked have only benefited Signature Press’ advance sales. It is, in many ways, the best publicity Van Wagoner could hope for, coming from a state that has often lost talented Mormon fiction writers to just such nonsense.
Moving between Salt Lake City, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Maine and spanning the history of two families, Dancing Naked explores the unraveling of the Walker family as they seek to recover from the suicide of 15-year-old Blake. Layers of guilt, self-doubt, importance, loathing, anger, and familial abuse float to the surface of the novel and threaten to strangle the protagonist, Terry Walker, a mathematics professor at the University of Utah.
After Walker discovers his son’s body hanging form a shower curtain rod, head covered by a plastic bag, and pornographic pictures of naked men splayed on the bathroom floor, his normally ordered mathematical world dissolves into chaos. As a self-avowed homophobe, Walker finds Blake’s death an almost unbearable cross to carry. Seeking answers in his own dysfunctional landscape, he floats form present to past, trying to make sense, hoping to unlock the mystery of his son’s demise. To do so will uproot the protagonist from a world he believes to be balanced and comfortable and plunge him deeply into a self-examination of profound significance. Terry Walker will see things he’d prefer not to, hear whisperings about his son that disgust him, and engage in behavior dangerous to himself and his family. Survival, for him, depends greatly on the ability to forgive and to accept the cards he has been dealt.
Walker’s journey through the novel is dark and painful, placing at risk all that is holy and sacred to him. To confront his son’s demons, he must revisit the untidy questions of his past. His relationship with his own father, a respected Mormon elder, was brutish, abusive, and condescending. Never able to fully please his father as a child, Terry finally rejected the Mormon faith, the expectation that he would fulfill his parents’ dream to go on a Mormon mission, and committed the most unpardonable of all sins, marriage outside the faith. Repugnant as it was to his father, Terry’s mother, a revisionist of her own life, accepted her son’s choices while trying to justify and dismiss her husband’s cold, methodic alienation.
It is in the character of the protagonist’s wife, Rayne Walker, that hope and possibility exist. Spunky, humorous, and sarcastic, Rayne, a public high school teacher, is uncompromising in her love for her family and husband. Throughout Dancing Naked, Rayne is a strong character, sympathetic and supporting on all fronts. Early in their relationship, she steadfastly refuses to allow Terry to compromise his dreams. Her strength in dealing with his family confounds and stimulates Terry. In a direct confrontation with Terry’s father, Rayne finds the words Terry can’t. She does not cower, verbally defending herself while Terry watches from the wings, mute and impotent. Rayne knows who she is, understands her son’s journey into his own private hell, and above all remains convinced that her husband will come to a greater understanding of himself through this tragedy. Even so, the complexity of Terry’s depression and his spiraling, reckless decline into a psychologically dark abyss push Rayne to the boundaries of her own limitations.
Ultimately, Terry Walker’s inability to accept and understand his own shortcomings exacts a heavy price on the family nucleus. Terry, an unsympathetic character, hovers on the brink of self-destruction and insanity, and his own salvation hinges on a single dark act. Coming full-circle, the reader is compelled to roll the dice with Van Wagoner’s protagonist, dice shaved and loaded with the weight of guilt.
Van Wagoner is a juggler of sorts—tossing universal themes into the air and managing, with a trained eye, to keep his focus on the central issues of the novel. Not once, in the arc of the novel, does he falter. We may not want to face these issues in our own lives, to acknowledge, as Tolstoy did, that all families are dysfunctional. But we are compelled to follow Walker’s nightmarish journey. There is no turning back. Like passing a horrible roadside accident, Dancing Naked forces us to take a look. We do it because we can’t help ourselves. We are curious—curious to see if anybody survived. In that moment we are reminded that life is capricious and reckless, that horrible things happen to good people. It isn’t fair and it makes no sense. And it is this equation that Terry Walker, brilliant mathematician and loving father, finds unfactorble in his own life. Dancing Naked is an ambitious first novel, one that demands the reader be fully armed and prepared to do battle with unimaginable grief. There is no safety net to help the audience negotiate the tightrope of this well-crafted novel. It is not for the faint of heart. Dancing Naked is dense and loaded with serious issues. At times it cuts to the bone, laying open wounds that are difficult to watch heal. Dangerous and edgy, it is brutally honest in its exploration of the human spirit.
The Salt Lake Tribune, Joan O’Brien
The first drafts of Dancing Naked contained no mention of Mormons, even though the novel is set in Salt Lake City. Then author Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner realized his book needed a “firmer grounding in place.” So he added details from the LDS culture to texture the writing.
The result is a book that one reviewer calls “the first great Mormon novel.” And Dancing Naked‘s grounding in place is so firm now that the novel has been named the 1999 Utah Book of the Year, an award recognizing “the book judged to best represent the literary culture of the state.” Van Wagoner will receive the award, the first presented by the newly established Utah Center for the Book, at a ceremony tonight.
Van Wagoner is flattered and grateful for the praise his book is attracting, but he hopes readers will see beyond the local color and recognize the universality of the issues—gay rights, prejudice, sexual repression and family dysfunction—that are addressed in Dancing Naked.
“It’s not a niche-able novel,” Van Wagoner said in a telephone interview from Washington State, where he, his wife and two sons moved last summer from Utah. “I worked hard to make sure that I was dealing with universal issues. . .Many of the issues are not Mormon-specific. It’s just that that is the environment I was born and raised in and that is what I know about.”
Dancing Naked is the story of University of Utah mathematics professor Terry Walker, a character Van Wagoner describes as often unsympathetic, but basically good. When his 15-year-old son dies, Walker is forced to confront his past, his homophobia and his unwitting role in Blake’s death.
Van Wagoner, 35, spent nine years finessing Dancing Naked, revising his manuscript some 50 times. He likens the process to “spending all day threading needles. By the end of it you are about ready to scream and stick one in your temple.”
Yet despite the difficulty and tedium, Van Wagoner was and is compelled to write. He is completing a collection of short stories and a novella as well as another novel, this one a dark comedy titled “The Hummerfest Fraternity.”
Van Wagoner’s careful, controlled writing process has yielded “a brilliant book” in Dancing Naked, says Guy Lebeda, literary coordinator for the Utah Arts Council and one of the founders of the Utah Center for the Book.
“This is a guy who treats a novel as if it were a poem. Every pause, every piece of punctuation, every word choice has been agonized over and not just once,” Lebeda says. “He is really dedicated to the craft. I have never known anyone so painstaking.”
Van Wagoner is not one of those authors who rhapsodizes about the joys of writing. It is hard work.
“I don’t write because I love it, although some of the best moments of my life occurred while I was writing,” says Van Wagoner. “I am compelled to write simply by whatever curse of God or nature. It’s what I do.”
Van Wagoner graduated from Weber State University with degrees in English and Psychology. After graduation, he had no idea what he would do for a living but whatever profession he chose, he was certain it would entail writing. He discussed it with his wife, Cheri, and they decided he should focus on a writing career while she focused on her teaching career. That was 12 years ago.
Not surprisingly, given his approach to the writing craft, Van Wagoner had difficulty letting go of Dancing Naked. After turning it over to the publisher, Salt Lake-based Signature Books, he even suffered something akin to post-partum depression.
Compounding his depression and anxiety was knowing he had written a character-based novel with a main character readers would not like. But he has found that “Terry is resonating with readers.”
“There is an authenticity to Terry and to the circumstance that people recognize in their own lives—but don’t really want to,” Van Wagoner says. “It’s kind of an uncovering of the deep, dark secrets. People harbor prejudices that often are not even acceptable to themselves.”
Van Wagoner did not set out to write about prejudice against gays. He wanted to explore how a man like Terry Walker could survive in a world saddled with all his fears and anxieties. The homophobia was “an ingredient” in the larger drama.
“Gay rights, the attitudes and activities of groups for and against, represent the next great civil rights struggle, it seem to me,” he says. “Homophobia is a powerful metaphor; it triggers issues of family dynamics that I wanted to explore.”
Van Wagoner was well into Dancing Naked when Utah took center stage on the gay-rights issue in 1996. While he was at work painting a picture of a teenager struggling with his sexual identity, students at East High School were battling for the right to keep their club, the Gay-Straight Alliance, where young gays could find community and a haven. A more recent controversy is opposition of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to gay marriage.
Van Wagoner was raised LDS in Ogden, served a mission to Norway and married in the temple. He and his wife left the church a few years ago, and left the state a few months ago. But the religion and the culture cannot help but continue to color Van Wagoner’s writing. His next novel, “The Hammerfest Fraternity,” is about LDS missionaries serving in a Norwegian town in the Arctic Circle.
It hasn’t even been published yet, but his comedic novel has already drawn the ire of church officials. After one of his readings from the manuscript, Van Wagoner was summoned to a meeting with a stake president. Although he had not read any of the manuscript, the stake president deemed it offensive and warned Van Wagoner to stop writing such works or face excommunication.
That stake president may be reassured that Van Wagoner is not seeking to write Mormon books. He does not want to write “the first great Mormon novel.” He just wants to write serious Mormon literature.
“I wrote Dancing Naked for people who love literature,” he says. “I know there’s been a debate for a long time about whether there could ever be a great Mormon novel, and if so, what kind of work would it be. . .I’ve just tried to keep my head down and keep an eye on the artistic goal, which is to write literature, plain and simple.”
Publishers Weekly, Judy Quinn
You wouldn’t think a novel about gay issues, with the title Dancing Naked, would sell well in Utah, the key state for the conservative Mormon community, which lately has been in the news for opposition to same-sex marriage initiatives.
But that’s been the case for the first novel by 35-year-old, Mormon-raised and now Washington State resident Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner. His book tells of a Mormon professor’s confrontation of his past and his homophobia, following the “dancing naked” death of his 15-year-old son, who accidentally hangs himself during an autoerotic act.
The book is currently the #1 title in the state on Amazon.com and a strong seller at the state’s chain stores as well as indies (it’s the #2 seller, just behind Harry Potter books, at Salt Lake City’s Sam Weller Books). Van Wagoner won a Utah Arts Council Publication Prize for his book, giving his publisher $5000 toward publication, and late last year Dancing Naked was named the 1999 Utah Book of the Year, the first award presented by the newly established Utah Center for the Book.
Thanks to this award attention and growing sales, Salt Lake-based small press Signature Books, which took the book after larger trade houses passed, just went back to press for 1,000 more copies, doubling the October 1999 release’s initial 1,000-copy outlay.
Signature publicist Ron Priddis told PW that sales velocity of Dancing Naked is looking like that of 1990 Signature fiction hit and backlist performer The Backslider, Levi S. Peterson’s saga about a sexually frustrated Mormon cowboy, which has sold 20,000 copies to date.
Both books reflect Signature’s mission, to provide both fiction and nonfiction that address Mormon cultural issues and life more critically than might meet the approval of the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Priddis noted that the Church-affiliated Deseret Book store chain is not carrying Dancing Naked. Contacted by PW, Deseret vice-president of retail Roger Toone confirmed that the chain indeed did not stock the book, although he said it would be special-ordered for any interested customers. “We’re not banning the book by any means, but we don’t think it has great sales potential,” he said.
But apparently there are more than enough liberal Mormons in Utah, as well as non-Mormons interested in their state’s dominant religion, to support Signature’s books. Online book selling particularly benefits from what might be surreptitious buys.
“Signature does a good job of giving a voice to writers who necessarily wouldn’t get one in the peculiar environment we live in,” said Barbara Hoagland, co-owner of the Salt Lake City indie bookstore King’s English. She’s already sold about 100 copies of the book, “quite a lot for a local author. Much of that’s because of the wonderful reviews it has received. And, of course, being a bit controversial helps, too.”
The Salt Lake Tribune began the buzz by praising the book as “a great Mormon novel” as well as one of the best books of the year. “It explores middle-class American culture through a prism of Mormon sexual misunderstandings,” praised the newspaper.
Literary agent Jenny Bent, of Washington, D.C.-based Graybill & English, is now shopping paperback rights to the novel on behalf of Signature. The growing out-of-state reviews of the book confirm the book’s potential appeal to all readers, not just those in Utah: “Dangerous and edgy, it is brutally honest in its exploration of the human spirit,” praised the Bloomsbury Review.
Bent is also looking for a new home for a collection of short stories by Van Wagoner. And there’s another Van Wagoner novel to come that’s already making the Mormon church none too happy. The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that a church official expressed displeasure to Van Wagoner after he heard about a reading of an early draft of “The Hammerfest Fraternity,” which centers around Latter-day Saint missionaries serving, as Van Wagoner did, in a Norwegian town in the Arctic Circle. The problem? It seems Van Wagoner has his missionaries “baptize” dead people to meet an annual conversion quota.
It’s all part of Van Wagoner’s intended comic tone, but may end up creating more of the controversy that is fueling sales of his current book.
The Salt Lake Tribune, Martin Naparsteck
Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner has written the first great Mormon novel, Dancing Naked. The novel, Van Wagoner’s first, achieves greatness by exploring universal themes through the specifics of the Mormon experience.
One day Terry Walker, a mathematics professor at the University of Utah, returns home to find his 15-year-old son, Blake, dead, hanging by a belt from the curtain rod of an upstairs bathroom. The death is ruled accidental, because near Blake were pictures of men engaged in homosexual acts, and investigators believe the boy was engaged in a homoerotic act. Blake’s death forces Terry to explore his own past, a past of hatred of homosexuals fostered by his father’s macho insistence that Terry be manly, with manliness defined by Mormon traditions.
Within this framework, Van Wagoner takes Walker deeper and deeper into his own psyche, using sometimes-lyric language as the vehicle, exposing Walker’s fears, hatreds, doubts, and emotional incompetencies so thoroughly that the protagonist, and the reader, is left drained but refreshed. Like all great literature, Dancing Naked reaches heights by dwelling in depths.
Several recurring metaphors enhance the feel. Terry suffers from an inability to move his bowels easily, causing him physical and emotional pain; he is, thus, anal retentive both psychologically and physically, and the physical part is long misdiagnosed by doctors, just as the psychological part is misdiagnosed by the society that nurtured Terry. Terry’s father almost lets his son drown during a Boy Scout exercise, and Terry decades later has his son swim in the same lake, emphasizing both the genetic nature of experience and the sense that we cannot keep afloat in life within parental guidance. A young Terry punches his father in the chest, that is, in the heart. And, in the most effective metaphor, the one that explains the title, Terry’s wife Rayne dances naked for him, exposing her sexuality in a way Terry himself is incapable of doing, denying his natural yearnings, just as his homophobia forced his son to deny his.
Terry comes to the slow and painful realization that just as his own father did so much psychic harm to him, so too must he be responsible for his son’s death. Maybe Blake’s death was not accidental, maybe he did intend to kill himself, and maybe his suicide would never have happened had Terry been more accepting.
The novel is filled with lies. Terry’s father lies about his experiences in World War II; Terry’s best friend, Avory, lies about his sexual nature; Terry’s mother lies about Terry’s father; and, overarching the whole novel, the culture of Utah lies to everyone who is part of it about our basic natures, our need to accept our sexualities as they are.
No other Mormon writer, with the exception of Levi Peterson, has explored the nature of sexuality within the Mormon culture so effectively, with such a sense of honesty, a sense that the author is willing to confront the most uncomfortable truths. Peterson’s best works, including the novel Aspen Marooney, are gentle and accepting critiques of the same culture Van Wagoner pillories. Peterson’s novels and stories are the whisperings of a loving father, while Van Wagoner’s are the shouts of the angry son. It is the shouting that gives Dancing Naked its power, its drive, that instills in the reader a compulsion to go on. There is not one single character in Dancing Naked to like, none are amiable, but all are human and deserving of our love. It’s a literary achievement reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Like Lawrence and Turgenev, Van Wagoner has written a novel of rejection, one that forces the reader, if the reader opens a heart to often unlikable characters, to face some uncomfortable truths: The culture that shaped us is flawed, the values we build upon are made of sliprock, the children we love are not us, the truths we believe in are lies.
If Dancing Naked were merely about a Mormon culture that is sexually repressive, it would be limited. But it is about more than that. It is about how middle class American culture stifles our natural drives. And more than that, it is about how culture, any culture, forces the individual into self-denial. We need to be individuals and we need to be part of something larger than ourselves. Some cultures, including the one in Utah, in Van Wagoner’s portrayal, falsely enlarge the second need by stifling the first.
No other Utah writer has painted such an honest, if painful, picture of the state’s culture. Honesty and pain, the pillars of great literature. Van Wagoner gives us both.
Irreantum, Christopher K. Bigelow
Outside orthodox Mormon circles, where historical and romantic fiction titles sometimes sell enough copies to make national bestseller lists if such titles were monitored, Robert Van Wagoner’s novel titled Dancing Naked is the biggest literary sensation to hit Utah in some time. People are calling Dancing Naked the new Backslider in terms of literary impact, and publisher Signature Books has confirmed that—so far—the novel’s sales are on track to match Levi Peterson’s 20,000-copy pinnacle of contemporary, serious Mormon literature. For Dancing Naked, Van Wagoner received a $5,000 publication award from the Utah Arts Council and the Utah Book Award from the Utah Center for the Book.
Is the novel worth the attention and praise it has received? After I read the earlier versions of the manuscript’s first couple of chapters excerpted in Signature’s In Our Lovely Deseret, a recent anthology of Mormon fiction, I predicted the forthcoming novel would be sensationalistic and overwritten. However, after digesting the whole novel I count myself among Van Wagoner’s fans. If, as some have argued, a novel’s deepest purpose is to seek and portray psychological truth—a relative, humanistic form of truth if there ever was one—then Dancing Naked is a deep novel indeed. Although it contains some Mormon elements, Dancing Naked is not really a Mormon novel—rather, it is a human novel about death, marriage, parenthood, family dynamics, sexuality, and other universal themes. For a young, first-time novelist who worked on his manuscript from approximately ages 25 to 34 (revising it more than 50 times), Van Wagoner is surprisingly convincing in the novel’s emotional depth and clarity. I found myself wondering if he had personally experienced death, because the scenes of grief seemed so expertly done. He handles middle-aged marriage, intergenerational conflict, and lifelong friendship equally well.
Written from the point of view of Terry Walker, a mathematics professor in Salt Lake City, the novel traces Terry’s struggle to come to terms with his father and son, both deceased and with both of whom he has love-hate relationships and seems tragically mismatched. His father, who we encounter in numerous flashbacks, is a macho Mormon patriarch who emotionally manhandles the confidence-lacking Terry, and Terry goes on to echo that manhandling—with much more tragic results—in raising his own oversensitive son, Blake. After warming up for a few pages, the novel starts with a bang as Terry discovers his son dead of autoerotic asphyxiation in the family bathroom, with homosexual pornography close at hand. Much of the novel’s narrative drive comes from Terry’s attempts to understand what went wrong with Blake, who, like Terry’s father, we come to know through flashbacks of Terry’s pained, confused, excruciating interactions with him. Not only does homophobic Terry struggle to come to grips with his son’s apparent homosexuality but also with whether Blake’s death—which Terry initially assumes is a homicide—was an accident or a suicide.
In the aftermath of Blake’s death, as readers agonize with Terry through his vividly detailed remembrances of his father and son, two female characters offer us—and sometimes Terry—psychic relief. Although Terry’s widowed mother spent her life enabling his abusive father, Terry is close to her—uncomfortably so as a child—and she becomes a somewhat reliable source of stability. But not as much so as Rayne, Terry’s wife, who is the novel’s most sympathetic character. In the flashback scenes of their courtship and early marriage, she seems to know how to handle not only Terry’s insecurities and neuroses but also his abusive father. However, after Blake’s death and especially after Terry realizes that Rayne knew of Blake’s homosexuality but didn’t tell him, their marriage begins to fall apart.
In a rather obvious but nevertheless effective metaphor, Terry has severe constipation, which doctors are unable to diagnose. In some ways, this novel could be viewed as a colonoscopy of Terry’s soul as well as of the family culture that formed him, and it will be about as comfortable for some to read as viewing a video of an internal medical exam. For a novel in which not much—outside of flashbacks—seems to happen between Blake’s death and an unexpected climax, the narrative snakes right along, much of it written in present tense, turning potentially discombobulating corners of time and setting quite fluidly, only occasionally pausing to focus on some abstract polyp of Terry’s inner state. Much of the novel—both flashback and present action—is grounded in vived scene, description, and dialogue, but occasionally the prose takes on, if not outright purpleness, at least a lavender tone. Although overall it reads fast and clean, the style and occasional rarefied paragraph about Terry’s inner state sometimes remind us this is a literary novel.
The novel’s powerful climax surprised me and yet seemed inevitable, but the denouncement is perhaps the novel’s weakest part, with what felt to me like too much tacked-on healing and resolution. Perhaps Van Wagoner agrees with Barbara Kingsolver, who recently told the New York Times that “no subject is too private for good fiction if it can be made beautiful and enlightening.” Dancing Naked adroitly addresses extremely private subject matter, but the last chapter plus the epilogue seem to be Van Wagoner’s way of leaving us on an excessively “beautiful and enlightening” note to make up for the overall tone of darkness, confusion, and unhappiness. Comparing the earlier Lovely Deseret excerpt with the novel’s final form, I noticed that Van Wagoner—or a Signature editor—considerably toned down the description of the gay pornography found at Blake’s death scene. Although the novel retains some explicit elements, I wonder how much was rewritten to avoid alienating more readers than necessary. All things considered, the novel did not make me feel cynical about Van Wagoner’s motives until the last pages—and if his motives are to build a literary career and leave readers wanting to come back for more, I don’t fault him beyond letting these motives show in the novel’s conclusion.
Now, about the novel’s Mormon elements. Terry is an inactive Mormon who, as a young adult, makes his break with both his father and the Church by deciding to not go on a mission and to marry the Catholic Rayne outside the temple. In the novel’s present time, Terry hasn’t attended church in nearly 20 years. His feelings about God seem to be mixed up with his feelings about his father: “God was of little concern to Terry as long as he didn’t report what he saw to Father” (239). I have wondered if Van Wagoner intends Father as a metaphor for the Church, an authoritarian patriarch who seeks to impose a skewed, intolerant morality on others through control and intimidation. Or perhaps it is Terry who is in some way a metaphor for the Church, a man who wants things to be right but does not know how to love because of repression and fear of the unknown, in this case mainly homosexuality. But Dancing Naked is not that easy to peg. I am happy to report that the novel does not have to be read as pro-gay or anti-Mormon, although it is possible to do both if a reader is so predisposed. The real concern of the novel is Terry’s psychological journey, not how fiction can be used as propaganda.
Van Wagoner, an Ogden native who graduated from Weber State University with degrees in English and psychology, told the Salt Lake Tribune that initially the novel contained no Mormon elements, but he added some to give it a “firmer grounding in place.” If those Mormon elements were stripped out, I believe the novel would still stand. Most other organized religions could have been substituted, or even just American culture in general. The novel is more the anatomy of a family than of a larger culture, though of necessity that culture looms behind the family members. For instance, Father’s macho abuses are tied to the Mormon mindset, but they don’t necessarily have to be—and the tie may not even be fair or justified. “Many of the issues are not Mormon specific,” Van Wagoner said. “It’s just that that is the environment I was born and raised in, and that is what I know about.” In a similar way, Van Wagoner included homophobia issues in the novel not because of some agenda but because “homophobia is a powerful metaphor; it triggers issues of family dynamics that I wanted to explore.”
Mormon elements aside, I find myself wondering if Dancing Naked could have been successfully published by a national press. Writing in the now-defunct Salt Lake Observer, critic Paul Swenson gave some intriguing glimpses of the novel’s route to publication: “Dancing Naked was originally placed for publication through an agent with an out-of-state university press, but the deal fell through due to several areas of disagreement. ‘It went to the boardroom of several publishing houses, but they were scared of the difficult issues it raises,’ Mr. Van Wagoner said. ‘The younger editors took it to their boards, but the senior editors didn’t want to take risks.'” Kudos to Signature for taking on the novel, which—for better or worse—will only further cement that small, regional house’s reputation for edgy, dangerous fiction that doesn’t get sold in most LDS bookstores or reach many mainstream readers.
Before Dancing Naked, Van Wagoner had already won considerable acclaim and publication for his short fiction. With this successful first novel, which an agent is reportedly trying to place for publication in paperback, he has made himself a writer to watch. Although he has moved away from Utah, he is undoubtedly delving deeper into Mormonism with his next novel, titled The Hammerfest Fraternity, the story of some Mormon missionaries serving in Norway. It will be interesting to see what additional artistic capacity he displays in his sophomore novel. With plot points such as missionaries baptizing dead people to meet conversion quotas, it sounds more in a comic vein, and due to public readings the manuscript has already attracted the negative attention of Church authorities. Unfortunately, even with the achievement of selling about 2,000 copies of Dancing Naked in a difficult, polarized market, Van Wagoner likely won’t be able to make a full-time living from his novels unless he can find either a national audience or a wider Mormon audience—or, ideally, both.