reviews – A Sense of Order and Other Stories

Jack Harrell“What an amazing collection—a knockout achievement that leaves the reader reeling. In Harrell’s universe the supernatural is natural, and God has imbued human beings with power they’re not quite sure how to wield. In each masterful, utterly original story, I saw myself, and I saw my culture, in a startling new light. I closed the book feeling enlightened and unsettled and thrilled—reactions that only great literature can produce.”  —Angela Hallstrom, author of Bound on Earth

“Jack Harrell’s fiction is the finest we’ve seen by a Mormon author. He is a convert rather than a hot house Mormon, which explains how he can so strikingly conjure both “the darkest abyss” and “the utmost heavens.” Writing about redneck cowboys or more urbane souls, his creations are believable. He reminds us of Gogol, and as the noted critic Belinsky once replied when someone compared a young Dostoevsky to Gogol: ‘Gogols don’t just grow like mushrooms.’ Nor do Harrells. His evocation of menace seems to me to recall the haunting mood of Cormac McCarthy as well—a no small achievement. Harrell’s prose is impressive, his imagery captivating, and his plot turns unexpected. He is unrivaled among LDS authors.” —Thomas F. Rogers, author of Huebener and Other Plays 

Local Author Taps into the Mormon Experience
Nate Sunderland, Rexburg Standard Journal, Friday, Sept. 24, 2010

It’s not your typical “Mormon Literature.”

That might be the best way to describe a new collection of stories entitled, “A Sense of Order and Other Stories,” by Jack Harrell, a faculty member of the English department at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

What that statement means is the stories in Harrell’s book are not escapist fiction, they don’t attempt to teach a religious moral and they don’t always have a happy ending. For instance, the book’s title story is centered around a suicide.

But, perhaps the biggest difference is its target audience. In his writing Harrell strives for a certain “literary quality,” aimed at “folks interested in writings by and about Mormons.” He hopes his stories are thought-provoking enough to force readers to ask questions about the world around them.

“My interest is in literary Mormon writing — I think there is plenty of popular … escapist stuff out there,” said Harrell. “But what I’m trying to strive for is literary quality and I know that means a smaller audience, (but) I’m OK with that.”

Creative writing is an art form for Harrell, a craft  he sees as being above pushing political, social or religious opinions onto readers.

“Art is beyond political agendas or social agendas — art is above dogmas and politics,” said Harrell. “I’m trying to write about people who in some cases happen to be Mormon, but they are people first. For me the humanity of the character is more important then their faith.”

But the Mormon faith is often one of the aspects that he believes makes his characters most intriguing.

“We have a remarkable theological perspective, one that is rarely tapped into,” said Harrell. “The ideas of personal revelation or the ideas of the pre-exsitence, or of becoming like God — these are big ideas and I think it’s a shame when the best we can do is a movie like ‘Singles Ward.’”

Harrell says that creative pieces like “Singles Ward” poke fun at Mormon culture, but they don’t always tap into the uniqueness that it is to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We’ve got this profound theology which can really deepen the meaning of the human experience,” said Harrell.

Robert Bird, another English faculty member at BYU-Idaho, wrote the foreword to the book and was high in his praise for Harrell’s work.

“Jack Harrell’s collection is excellent, with strong characters, powerful conflicts and interesting philosophical implications,” said Bird. “His characters live in the real world, but they yearn for a supernatural presence, though that supernatural presence is always left ambiguous in the work.”

“A Sense of Order and Other Stories,” includes 16 short stories about “people confronting circumstances they are unprepared for, contests between human will and fate” and more, according to a publisher’s news release.

Each story ranges in length from 2 to 30 pages. The book is published by Signature Books of Salt Lake City.

The volume is available to purchase from the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Idaho Falls, where Harrell will be on Saturday at 2 p.m. to do a reading and to discuss his new book.

A riveting collection, very highly recommended
Midwest Book Review

Chaos seems to be more prevalent in the world than order- or does it? “A Sense of Order and Other Stories” is a collection of stories from Jack Harrell as he provides a collection of short stories with a collection of characters looking for the status of the world and the problems that lurk everywhere around them, and the order that can be found anywhere as well. A Sense of Order is a riveting collection, very highly recommended.

Harrell’s Mettle
Karen Rosenbaum —Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought

How do you read a collection of short stories by one author? Do you curl up with the book the same way you would with a novel, reading one story after another until your leg falls asleep or your stomach growls for food or the phone rings? Do you read one story, then close the book to think about it, perhaps reopening the book to reread parts of the whole? Do you expect the stories to be connected by characters or theme or tone and therefore search for universal elements? Do you come to each story afresh, hungry for wonder and new insights?

The way you answer those questions will probably determine how you react to Jack Harrell’s A Sense of Order and Other Stories, winner of the Association forMormon Letters’ short fiction award for 2010.

With the exception of two Adam and Eve pieces, the sixteen stories in this collection are not linked, so don’t settle in for one long read. Harrell’s tales are better explored one by one, with time for appreciation and contemplation between them. Although there are some common themes, there is not a clear “sense of order”–but there isn’t a sense of chaos either. Despite the frequent appearance of mystical elements, the stories make sense–even when, as in the final piece, “Calling and Election,” the reader can’t, with certainty, distinguish between reality and illusion. Harrell’s characters are usually estranged from both others and themselves; all are aware of the confusion in their world. What distinguishes them is the way they react to this confusion.

This pattern is probably most easily seen in the six shortest stories. Each of the main characters is profoundly depressed One’s solution is suicide, another’s is sleep; a third’s is defiance. The three more imaginative depressed characters daydream–although their dreams offer neither escape nor resolution. In the most compassionate of the short-shorts–“Who Would Not?”–a morbidly obese woman sitting on her front porch sees two “bright and blond teenage girls in vivid dresses” (113) and reflects on their giddiness and the burden of her own body and life. Harrell quietly uses both the woman’s point of view and an omnicient narrater to tell us, “She glimpses the fountain of the girls’ health and color, but she overlooks a truth too simple to see: theirs is a myster as deep as her own” (114).

In the longer stories, Harrell’s characters mature, both despite and because of obstacles, despair, and turmoil. These human beings range in age from a high school senior who attends a heavy metal concert with Jesus to a presumably aged but quirky and independent Mormon prophet who longs to buy a garden hose and an Almond Joy in a Wal-Mart. Harrell’s mostly male protagonists include an actuary, a college teacher,a seminary teacher, an electronics repairman, and a forklift operator who makes and sells wishing wells. Four stories feature Mormon characters; three of these and four others feature supernatural elements –visitations, voices, revelations. Sometimes, but not always, the other-worldly might–or might not–be explained by physical phenomena–a brain tumor, a stroke.

For these characters, the external conflicts reflect the internal conflicts. There is what can be called good and evil in the characters, although there is rarely a clear division between them. At least three of Harrell’s characters seem to speak for Satan: the unnamed man with cold, small eyes in “The Trestle,” Lucifer in “The Lone and Dreary World,” and Brother Lucy in “Calling and Election.” Each tempts the protagonist to actions that would result in his ultimate destruction, but the satanic character is either clever or confused enough himself to mask the outcome until it is too late. Brother Lucy recalls the devil in the book of Job. In a paper at the Association of Mormon Literature meeting in February of 2009, Harrell argued: “Goodness in fictional characters is deep rich, and complex; while evil is shallow, paltry, and simple. yet the three satanic characters do not seem “shallow, paltry, and simple”–Brother Lucy especially seems multi-faceted.

“Calling and Election,” in particular, may remind a reader of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale “Young Goodman Brown.” Harrell’s protagonist is seminary teacher Jerry Sangood. Though he isn’t without goodness (the literal meaning of his surname), he may have an unhealthy craving to have his calling and election made sure; on the other hand, he seems to want no more than what many other devout Mormons have coveted. The seminary director also has an allegorical name–Brother Severe–but he, like the other two seminary teachers, all donfess to Jerry his part in their own salvations.

Goodness in Harrell’s stories may seem much more than “deep, rich, and complex”; it may make life intolerable. The college teacher Morgan, who has developed “Godsight” in the story of that name, can hardly bear the pain he sees in the lives of those around him, including the woman who lies about him so that she can chair their department.

Harrell does a better job with his male characters than his female ones. Most of his women are nice enough people, but limited in sensitivity and understanding. One of the strongest women is Andie, the librarian in “Jerome and the Ends of the Universe,” my own favorite of the stories. Yet Andie’s climactic scene in which she explains a kind of revelation she has had about her relationship with her ex-husband, wasn’t persuasive to me. Even here, through, the dialogue works; in fact, the dialogue is convincing in all the stories.

Some of the stories are set in southern Illinois, where Harrell lived until he was nineteen; others take place in southern Idaho, where Harrell now lives and teachers English at BYU-Idaho. The first Adam and Eve story, “The Lone and Dreary World,” takes place in the wilderness into which Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden. (From the description of the mountainous landscape, a reader assumes the setting is far from Missouri–but perhaps not far from Idaho.)

Harrell (or the editor?) has not chosen one of the most compelling stories for the title. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the repitiion of “story” (A Prophet’s Story and Other Stories), perhaps he wanted to avoid the repetition of “and” (Jerome and the Ends of the Universe and Other Stories; Calling and Election and Other Stories). But how about the first story in the collection, the one about a non-Mormon teenager who accompanies Jesus to a Megadeth concert in Idaho Falls? Tregan’s Mettle and Other Stories would have been a splendid title for this startling and original collection.

Note:

Jack Harrell, Presidential Address, Association of Mormon Letters annual meeting, February 2009, http://www.jackharrell.net/mormon-conflict-paper.html.

Pushing Against Boundaries
Shelah Mastny Miner —BYU Studies

As an enthusiastic reader of literary fiction and as someone who is fascinated by Mormon culture, I am always on the lookout for works of  literary fiction that contain Mormon themes or Mormon characters. While there are always plenty of new romances on the shelves at Deseret Book, and Mormon authors frequently find commercial and critical success writing science fiction and books for young adults, it is rare to come across works of contemporary fiction written for adults in which the characters are nuanced and well developed and the authors take risks with form and plot. Over the last two years, three books—Jack Harrell’s A Sense of Order and Other Stories, Steven L. Peck’s The Scholar of Moab, and David Clark’s Death of a Disco Dancer—use Mormon themes and characters in their writing while pushing against some of the boundaries of traditional fiction conventions.

A Sense of Order and Other Stories is the first collection of short stories published by Jack Harrell, a fiction writer and essayist who teaches at BYU–Idaho. The collection won the 2010 Association for Mormon Letters Short Fiction Award. Harrell is currently the coeditor of Irreantum, a literary journal published by the Association for Mormon Letters. His novel, Vernal Promises, won the Marilyn Brown Novel Award in 2000 and was published by Signature Books. The collection A Sense of Order and Other Stories contains sixteen stories, including “Calling and Election,” which won first place in the Irreantum fiction contest and was later anthologized in Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction.

The stories in A Sense of Order and Other Stories take place in settings as varied as rural Illinois; Rexburg, Idaho; the office of the prophet; and the lone and dreary world. Not all of Harrell’s characters are Latter-day Saints, but many are. Some of the stories contain supernatural elements, including characters from other realms of life. But all of the stories, regardless of setting or worldview, feel realistic and grounded. They also contain an element of hope and faith, without being cheesy or overly sentimental. Jack Harrell’s writing shows promise that the LDS tradition does have room for excellent writing and that there is an audience for that writing, even if it is a small one.

One of the most delightful aspects about A Sense of Order and Other Stories is the sheer unexpectedness of where the narrative takes the reader. In “A Prophet’s Story,” Harrell begins with the LDS prophet sitting in his office, dreaming about how nice it would be to get in a truck, drive to Walmart, look at garden hoses, and buy a candy bar without the entourage and adoring crowds that would turn such an excursion into a chore. What readers do not expect is the level of planning that the prophet and his secretary undertake to carry out his wish or the parallel narrative of an apparently unstable motorcyclist who is making a stop in Salt Lake City. Harrell somehow brings the two narratives together, revealing that the motorcycle guy is not altogether crazy and that the prophet’s jaunt might be not just a joyride but an inspired journey.

The Scholar of Moab by Steven L. Peck, a biology professor at Brigham Young University, is a recent work that won the 2011 Association for Mormon Letters Novel Award and is published by Torrey House Press, an independent book publisher of literary fiction and creative nonfiction focusing on the environment and culture of the American West. Peck’s previous works include the novel The Gift of the King’s Jeweler, published by Covenant Communications in 2003; he has also published several short stories and poems, including a chapbook of poetry published by the American Tolkien Society called Fly Fishing in Middle-Earth. His essays have appeared in Newsweek and Dialogue.

The ambition of The Scholar of Moab is impressive; even though its length, at just under three hundred pages, is not necessarily epic, it feels epic in scope. One reason is that the book encompasses so many different voices. The book centers on the story of Hyrum Thayne, a high school dropout turned “scholar.” Readers not only get Hyrum’s private journal—misspellings, malapropisms, and all—but they also hear poems from his wife, Sandra; letters and poems from his gal-on-the-side, Dora; letters from an erudite, despairing, conjoined twin who works as a cowboy in the LaSal Mountains outside of Moab; notes from an unnamed redactor; and letters, transcripts, and additional written work from other voices. As a reader, I found myself marveling at Peck’s ability to differentiate between so many different voices, although at times I felt a bit too conscious of the effort Peck exerted to create them.

The Scholar of Moab is also a book that manages to walk the fine line between satirizing the people of Moab and embracing them. On the back jacket, Scott Abbott writes that the novel is “satire of the best sort: biting what it loves, snuggling up to what it hates,” an assessment with which I heartily agree. Sandra and her ward members are both ignorant and tender, and my reaction to Hyrum vacillated from hate to love and back again several times over the course of the narrative.

The Scholar of Moab can be read as realistic fiction where an astounding number of coincidences come together to create delightfully weird and tragic situations; it is also possible to read it as magical realism. I am not sure that Peck comes down decisively on either side of the genre issue. The Scholar of Moab is rich, nuanced, and complicated. It expects a lot from its readers, and I appreciate the growing body of books out there by and for (but not exclusively for) Mormons who embrace these complexities.

David Clark wrote Death of a Disco Dancer while taking a sabbatical from his job as a corporate attorney. He has published short stories in Sunstone and Irreantum and has been an award winner in the Brookie and D.  K. Brown Memorial Fiction Contest. While an undergraduate at BYU, he served as editor of the American Studies Forum. He also served as articles editor of the George Washington Journal of International Law and Economics.

Death of a Disco Dancer tells the story of Todd Whitman, an elevenyear-old Mormon living in Mesa, Arizona. Todd’s grandmother, who is suffering from dementia, recently moved in with his family. In the daytime, Todd’s life is like most eleven-year-old boys on the cusp of graduating from Primary and going to junior high—he’s consumed by his first crush, as well as by the social pressure of keeping up with two older siblings. At night, when everyone else is asleep, Granny visits Todd’s bedroom, where she proclaims her love for the Dancer (John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever), teaches Todd how to dance, and relives her past.

The secondary narrative takes place in the present time and shows Todd, now an adult, working through the waning days of his own mother’s life, which provides a subtle reinforcement of how certain patterns cycle through families. This narrative also places the events of Todd’s childhood into relief as he looks back at them from a distance of thirty years. The fact that the narrator is in his forties looking back on his childhood experiences might account for why the “young” Todd in the main narrative feels older than eleven. His thoughts and concerns seem more believable as a teenager than as a rising seventh grader. Perhaps Clark sees Todd as an unusually precocious eleven-year-old.

Quibbles aside, in Death of a Disco Dancer Clark is able to do something that few LDS authors have achieved so far—like Harrell’s and Peck’s books, Clark’s book is about Mormons but not necessarily for a Mormon audience alone. He talks about Mormon elements in a familiar way, but while the book is about subjects that are central to the Mormon experience (eternal families, repentance, progression through the ranks of the priesthood), they are presented in a universal way. The book is tight and well edited, rich and complex, and totally compelling. I read the 300-plus page book in less than a day, not because I had to, but because I wanted more. I hope Clark gives us more.

While all three books are worth reading on their own merits, it is also interesting to look at the three in conjunction with each other as possible predictors of trends in Mormon literary fiction. All three books take risks in terms of form and plot. Harrell’s stories (notably “Calling and Election”) start out in a world Latter-day Saints are familiar with—a church parking lot in Eastern Idaho, for example—but then take them out of the realm of realistic fiction and into something approaching magical realism. Peck’s book challenges readers by playing with form (interweaving journals, letters, poems, and traditional arrative), introducing potentially unreliable narrators, and injecting possible elements of magical realism as well. Death of a Disco Dancer’s alternating chapters require readers to make connections between the worlds of eleven-year-old Todd and forty-year-old Todd. All three books are funny and are not afraid to be strange. These stories might not appeal to all mainstream readers, but they definitely appeal to me, and I think they would appeal to many readers of literary fiction, Mormon or otherwise.