reviews – The Backslider
“The Backslider took me right back into my Southern Utah childhood, I know those dry desert roads, the zealous Mormon mother, the rundown barns, ornery old horses, the hell-raising boys, and the nutty relations. I was thrilled to see these Mormon stories told with such clear-eyed complex realism, neither the fluffy idealistic Mormonism nor the perverse cynical Mormonism most Mormon novels fall into, but rather a real Mormonism full of messy, often-odd, but mostly good folks. Frank’s story felt vividly real to me, he was the boys from mutual, the boys I rode the school bus with, his journey so compelling I disappeared right into it. I got impatient with my kids every time they interrupted me (I mean must they really have dinner every night?), I just had to know where Frank’s backsliding journey would lead, and the ending was everything I’d hoped . . . only better.”
—Lisa Patterson Butterworth, founder of Feminist Mormon Housewives
Deseret News, Dennis Lythgoe
It isn’t often that a living writer hears his work called a classic—at least on the Mormon literary scene. But that’s what has happened to Levi Peterson, professor emeritus of English at Weber State University, who is now seventy-three.
Signature Books has published a twenty-year anniversary edition of his critically praised and popular book “The Backslider.” For which I say, kudos.
When Peterson retired, he and his wife, Althea, moved to Issaquah, Washington, to be near their daughter and their grandchildren. While there, Peterson finished his splendid, critically acclaimed autobiography, “A Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning” (2006).
But his literary career started with “The Backslider,” his first novel, a realistic book about Frank Windham, a young southern Utah cowboy who wrestles with his Mormon faith. Peterson characterizes Frank as a man “with a square jaw, a big mouthful of white teeth, a button nose and a shock of brown hair which bounced above his shingled temples like loose hay on a wagon.”
When the book was published in 1986, it was immersed in controversy. Some Mormon readers were offended by the thought that a young man would be depicted as having theological struggles. Others were disturbed that a Mormon author would even deal with issues such as sex and, in multifaceted ways, sin.
Peterson’s character is a Mormon through and through, but he is very interested in women and constantly beset by temptations, especially lust—and he frequently gives in to them. He has illicit sex with Marianne, a non-Mormon daughter of the man for whom he works.
When she becomes pregnant, he does the right thing and marries her, even though he doesn’t love her. While they are married, he falls in love with her. He worries so much about his sins that he is convinced that his soul is lost, but he also repents with some regularity.
He wants to feel “spiritual” but doesn’t really understand how that is done. Frank knows what he thinks is right and he desperately wants to measure up, but God remains mysterious to him.
More important, some Mormons identified with “The Backslider” and could understand many of Frank’s worries and mistakes. Reading it made them feel that they were not alone in the doubts, struggles, and problems that often come with a religious commitment.
Mormon literary critics have correctly compared Peterson to Charles Dickens and William Faulkner in his ability to translate his culture to the printed page. Because he didn’t start writing until he reached his forties, he has written just seven other books. They’re probably all better than they would have been if he had started in his twenties.
Re-reading “The Backslider” presents the unmistakable feeling that it has weathered two decades very well indeed. It is still as relevant as it was in 1986, and Peterson’s delicious prose is filled with humorous interpretations and traditional Mormon sayings that are bound to make almost any Mormon feel at home.
Moreover, his ability to create characters and advance plot is probably unparalleled among Mormon writers. Had he, like Faulkner, come from the Southern culture, his name would probably be nationally known and appreciated.
Peterson’s book is also filled with humor, warmth, tolerance, and love. (Be warned, however, that the story includes an account of self-mutilation.)
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Richard J. Cummings
Levi Peterson’s first novel is an event eagerly awaited by all those who have come to appreciate such masterful, prize-winning short stories as his “The Confessions of Saint Augustine” and The Road to Damascus, both republished in his prize-winning 1982 collection of short stories, The Canyons of Grace, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press). It is therefore not surprising that the novel received the Association for Mormon Letters’ Best Novel Award for 1986. It is indeed a memorable first novel which more than lives up to the expectations of those who had already recognized in Peterson a rising master of Western regional fiction.
What we have here is sprawling, brawling narrative—at once Dickensian and Rabelaisian—which explores the highways and byways of Mormonism in a manner that is provocative, entertaining, illuminating, irritating, and, ultimately (at least for the reader who is open to its earthy candor), deeply gratifying. The Dickensian quality is unmistakable in the rogue’s gallery of memorable characters which the author describes with a sure hand, invariably zeroing in on that trait or mannerism which is most revealing and of which we would expect the character to be most self-conscious. Even the hero, Frank Windham, is caricatured as having “a square jaw, a big mouthful of white teeth, a button nose and a shock of brown hair which bounced above his singled temples like loose hay on a wagon” (p. 5). His future wife calls him “Horseface” when she first meets him and immediately comments on the size of his hands even though “Frank’s big hands weren’t something he liked to have mentioned” (p. 12).
The names of Peterson’s characters are as appropriate to southern Utah as Dickens’s Pickwickian names are evocative of nineteenth-century London. Whether it is Clara Earle, the hero’s future mother-in-law, who “had the shape of a tripod: fat thighs, big buttocks, narrow shoulders, a little head . . . tartared teeth, ruddy cheeks and cheerful eyes” (p. 2), or Jeannette, her younger daughter, who “had big woodchuck teeth, golden braids, and a chest a flat as a board” (p. 44), or Salsifer Jamison, the hero’s uncle, who was “about seventy but looked older” whose “jowls and dewlap drooped” and whose “head was bald except for a little rim of bristle” (p. 80), or Farley Chittenden, the lecherous polygamist with a “redbrown walrus mustache and a shiny bald dome circled by a rim of wild prophetical hair” (p. 159), or Rossler D. Jarbody, the fee-conscious, jack-Mormon lawyer whose garish clothes “snarled and spit at each other” (p. 174), the net result is an unforgettable dramatis personae ideally suited to the colorful setting.
Although the characters are predominantly Mormon, the author varies the diet by including Masons, Fundamentalists, Protestants, and unbelievers as well. In making Marianne, Frank’s girlfriend, a nominal Lutheran, he effectively uses their contrasting belief systems to highlight various theological issues and personal tensions. It should be noted that, despite the broad humor of the novel and the occasional lapses into crude rural slapstick, the author avoids the extremes of callous ridicule and mawkish sentimentality in recounting the adventures and relating the foibles of his characters.
The Rabelaisian quality of the novel becomes apparent early on when the hero, Frank Windham, reflects on the anatomical proximity of the organs of reproduction and elimination, noting that “God had showed what he thought of people’s sex organs when he put them in such cozy company with their bladders and guts. He had created people with sex organs so they could get married and use them once in a while to multiply and replenish the earth. But even before he started, God knew that people wouldn’t stop at multiplying and replenishing the earth. . . . They’d lust and lasciviate and tickle themselves any old time for fun and pleasure” (p. 44).
Peterson’s unrepentently scatological approach to his story and his frequent graphic allusions to the whole range of bodily functions and sexual activity are sure to offend the prim and prudish and will doubtless elicit accusations of tastelessness and even prurience. I must confess that, at several points in the narrative, I was tempted to complain that the author had gone out of his way to remind the reader that living is firmly based in a series of crass physiological events—ingestion, defecation, urination, regurgitation, copulation, intoxication, expectoration, parturition, menstruation, masturbation, and expiration.
However, behind this endless sequence of bodily activities and physical events lies a value system of unassailable integrity which, for want of a better term, I would call holistic humanism. By that I mean that for Levi Peterson, the human experience is a seamless whole: just as reproduction and excretion are inextricably linked, so are the mind and the emotions, the body and the soul. Anyone who tries to separate the spiritual from the physical does violence to the human condition and must suffer the unhappy consequences whether it be guilt-ridden hypocrisy, mental imbalance, or worse yet—suicidal or homicidal destructiveness. Approached on the purely physical level, the novel seems disarmingly picaresque. We follow the hero in his peregrinations across the width and the breadth of Utah, with a little hell-raising in northern Arizona for good measure. On a deeper level, we realize that Frank is engaged in a spiritual pilgrimage, which, while not divorced from his efforts to become a rancher or his courting interests or his concern for his deranged brother, nevertheless goes beyond these purely physical pursuits which it encompasses and to which it gives meaning.
It is significant that the novel opens with Frank deep in prayer trying to confirm a bargain—a “pseudo-covenant”—which he thought he had struck with God. “Actually, it was Frank’s bargain, God had never confirmed it. That was the way with God. He never offered Frank any signs, he never gave him any encouragement. He left him penned up with his own perversity like a man caught in a corral with a hostile bull” (p. 1).
So Frank begins his pilgrimage trying to get a response from God, which, when it is not forthcoming, leads him to rebel by resorting to riotous living. Then he has a vision of a vindictive God observing him through a celestial gunsight, and, out of sheer dread of retribution, he adopts an austere life-style. His heroic efforts to renounce all vanities and pleasures—especially those of the sexual variety—only lead to the disheartening episodes of recidivism which give the novel its name. Finally, just when his sinful backsliding has all but destroyed any sense of self-worth he might have had and he is besieged with self-destructive impulses, he has another vision in which Marianne’s Savior, the “cowboy Jesus,” sets everything right in a life-affirming, surprise ending.
It should be clear by now that, although Frank Windham is neither John Bunyan’s Christian nor a typical Mormon, he is engaged in a pilgrimage which is instructive to Christians generally and to Mormons in particular. For all of his joshing and parodying, Levi Peterson’s basic message seems to be clear and simple: the human challenge lies in avoiding the all-too-human extremes of debauchery and asceticism in favor of a balanced way of life through which we can celebrate our humanness while pursuing moral and spiritual betterment—a kind of ethical Word of Wisdom which prizes moderation in all things. Theologically speaking, Peterson shows equal disdain for God as the “celestial chief executive officer” with whom the faithful can make redemptive business deals and for the vengeful God of the Old Testament.
Although the novel has enough universal human appeal that it can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone, only the Mormon reader can fully appreciate the wide range of insights into the Mormon experience which the novel affords. In this connection, it is significant that the hero is introduced spiritually before he is described physically. After first meeting him on his knees prayerfully—and fruitlessly—seeking confirmation of his “pseudo-covenant,” we are told that “Frank would be lucky to inherit even the Telestial Kingdom. A fellow who belonged to the true church and who believed in God but wished he didn’t was in big trouble” (p. 5). This is a significant departure from the typical fictional Mormon protagonist who is either riddled with doubt or has left the fold completely. However outrageous his conduct or observations may be, Frank Windham is a Mormon “true believer” who accepts the divinity of the LDS faith in spite of himself and whose only issue is the nature of his relationship to his maker and whether he is doomed to perdition.
In introducing us to Frank Windham, Levi Peterson turns the tables on those who expect the heroes of fiction about Mormonism to be either pious frauds or hopeless renegades. Frank is simply a redblooded Mormon cowboy who feels he has been cursed with insatiable animal appetites and an unshakable testimony which at first bedevils him but with which he eventually comes to terms.
Indeed, it is the process of coming to terms which Levi Peterson employs so skillfully not only to tell an entertaining and often touching story, but also to compile a veritable encyclopedia of the varieties of Mormon religious experience. He includes not only mainstream Mormonism in all its diversity—Sunday meetings, interviews with the bishop, baptism, ordination, anointing of the sic, scripture reading, private and public prayers, viewings and funeral services (“Sure as daylights somebody at a funeral always had to say the corpse looked natural . . . Salsifer didn’t look natural unless, of course, natural meant looking shrunk, fallen, and dead” [p. 213])—but also the more sensational, fanatical, and heretical undercurrents of Mormonism such as polygamy and blood atonement (“Ross Drummer gave himself to men . . . they cut his throat . . . he had a black witness . . . he asked to be cleansed by his own blood” [p. 334]).
Very much in the humorous tradition of Mark Twain, Peterson has a special knack for carrying certain aspects of Mormon belief to their absurd conclusion, a knack which is bound to exasperate the orthodox as much as it will delight the heterodox. Frank remembers how, as boys, he and his brother had led their dog Rupert into the waters of baptism noting that “he won’t make the Celestial Kingdom unless he’s baptized,” after which they nearly drowned the poor beast: “If his foot comes out of the water, we’ve got to do it over” since “God will send you to hell if part of you ain’t under the water” (p. 108). When a black raven appears on the scene, Frank shouts “Keeerummm, it’s the Holy Ghost!” and the parody is complete. Is this irreverent and even blasphemous, or is it a good-humored and creative adaptation or idiosyncratic Mormon practices and folklore? I would submit that answering this question is very much like taking Rorschach test—the truth of the matter lies more in the beholder than in what is beheld.
One aspect of the novel which may perplex some readers is the time frame within which the narrative is placed. Nothing explicit is said to indicate when the events of the novel are supposed to take place, although revealing that the going price for goats is $25 (p. 3), that English 3 is offered at the University of Utah (p. 22), and that one of the characters is a faculty member at the College of Southern Utah in Cedar City (p. 49) are all clear giveaways that the action is not set in the present. In fact, it is not until page 50 when Clara thinks “it was disloyal of Harold Stassen to try to push Vice President Richard Nixon off the Republican ticket” that we realize by inference that the novel is placed exactly three decades ago in 1956. Even though this displacement to an earlier time is not explicitly heralded and comes more as a kind of shock of recognition, it has a subtle but unmistakable effect on the way in which the reader responds to the narrative. Somehow setting the action in the fifties, in a relative “age of innocence” which antedates the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the political ferment and sexual liberation of the sixties and seventies heightens the grotesqueness and raunchiness of the thoughts and actions of the major characters while at the same time lending to the novel an aura of nostalgia. The novel makes its point even more emphatically than if it had been placed in a contemporary setting because the author cultivates a relentless realism which refuses to gloss over anything. At the same time, the novel comes through as a loving retrospective because of the warmth with which the characters are drawn and the tolerance and understanding with which their follies and shortcomings are related.
Although in Levi Peterson, the backwaters of Utah may not yet have found their Shakespeare, they certainly have at least found their very own John Steinbeck! In a sense, The Backslider is the first instance of a new genre which combines in broad strokes with subtle touches caricature, humor, theology, folklore, and plain old everyday horse sense in a way which readers will either admire or detest, but which must be approached on its own terms. This trail-blazing first novel is a veritable tour de force, which, I predict, will create even more admirers for Peterson and which whets the appetite of the true aficionado for more, much more, in the same vein.
Student Review, Philip White
Levi Peterson, I think, is a more deliberately “Mormon” writer than Linda Sillitoe. In his previous collection of stories, The Canyons of Grace, he deals explicitly with Mormon theological concerns, with a good deal of humanity, complexity, and narrative craft. Like the stories in this earlier book, Peterson’s novel The Backslider draws on such religious themes as sin and redemption, works and grace, and the tension between the individual will and obedience to God.
Peterson’s protagonist is a lustful, yet on the whole decent Mormon cowboy named Frank Windham who struggles with his own sense of damnation and resentment towards God. The crucial tensions arises from Frank’s negative view of his sexuality. He loves life in an earthy, sensual manner, but he is convinced that God condemns him for it. In an effort to atone for his sons, he engages in stringent and obsessive asceticism and self-mortification. He marries a Lutheran girl he doesn’t (at first) love, but whom he had gotten pregnant. He eats only bland foods. He only has sex with his wife once a week. He feels guilty for eating with relish, swearing, exceeding the speed limit, and even for not thinking about spiritual things for a few hours. His self-punishment reaches a climax when he considers taking his own life by self-mutilation in an act of blood atonement.
This seems pretty heavy fare, and Peterson’s treatment is duly serious and poignant. Nevertheless, The Backslider is a funny novel with more quirks and twists and shocks and strangeness and suspense than we could ask for from a purely comic writer. It is randy and rollicking. If it were made into a movie it might be rated R for explicit sex and grotesque violence (there are castration scenes—and not only of animals). Despite its graphic detail and raunchiness however, The Backslider is perhaps the most important Mormon novel I’ve seen yet. I’m not an expert on Mormon literature, but it seems that of the novels written from Mormon culture and experience, the most successful novels have been the least “Mormon,” and the most “Mormon” (at least topically) have been the poorest novels by artistic and literary standards.
Since I believe that the first allegiance of a writer should be to the language and to universal experience rather than to his narrow cultural background (though the two are obviously intertwined), I have normally looked askance at most self-consciously “Mormon” literature. I think any writer’s main consideration should be to tend well to his craft and to write from authentic experience. If Mormon theology is significant in his life, it will manifest itself naturally from these primary concerns. The Backslider is important in Mormon literature because in it, Peterson achieves for the most part an aesthetically authentic religious vision. Though this has been done before in other religions, to my mind Peterson’s book is the most successful attempt in Mormonism so far. As to whether Peterson is making light of, or shedding light on sacred things—well, you decide.
Utah Holiday Magazine, Paul Swenson
When the supermarket clerk first approached Levi Peterson in the produce section of an Ogden Albertson’s, it was to tell him how funny he thought Peterson’s new novel was. By the time the man confronted Peterson again a few days later while ringing up his groceries, he had done some deeper thinking about the implications of The Backslider, a relentless work of humor and anguish set in Mormon Utah’s rural Garfield County during the 1950s. “What you are saying is that God isn’t against us having appetites,” the man said—a statement, not a question. “I don’t think you could ask for a better reading of the novel than that,” says Peterson, a faint smile playing beneath his salt-and-pepper mustache that matches his hair and his Harris Tweed jacket.
The upstate, downstate and East Coast returns are coming in now on Peterson’s novel, and they are amusingly varied in tone. A woman from Salt Lake City wrote him to say she was easing into cautious activity in the Mormon church again after ten years of exile, and that Peterson’s novel came along at the right time. “For a reason I don’t understand,” she said, “it’s so sustaining to see these fears and struggles in print.” Peterson’s own brother told him that “the only normal people in your book are Gentiles,” meaning non-Mormons. A liberal, Catholic, psychiatric nurse in Brooklyn wrote Peterson that she diagnosed his treatment of the tormented character of Jeremy Windham, the self-mutilated brother of Frank Windham, the cowboy protagonist of The Backslider, to be “pretty convincing.” Except, said the nurse, Jeremy was “too coherent” after his breakdown.
Can a story about lust, masochism, repression, love and redemption be funny? Or, as someone else might ask, can it be anything but? In the case of The Backslider, the answer to both questions is yes. Filtered through the unraised consciousness of its guilt-ridden but resolute hero, the novel is raucous, robust and masculine in a way that is deliciously distinctive to the pre-1960s. A maverick who hasn’t been “Priesthood-broke,” in the cynical phrase that has come to signify obedience to ecclesiastical authority for some Mormons, Frank Windham is an obscure ranch hand working for an agnostic agronomist, who has a Lutheran wife and daughter and a cattle spread south of Panguitch. Windham’s wants are modest but intense. He loves his fancy boots, his pearl-buttoned shirts, his blue Chevrolet pickup, and occasionally, up a trail somewhere in Zion Park, he can feel the freedom and exhilaration of a mustang or a hawk, at home in his natural environment. But “like a man caught in a corral with a hostile bull,” Frank feels God has penned him up with his own perversity. On one front, he’s working a sharecropper’s sixteen-hour day for his thoughtlessly exploitive boss, Wesley Earle. On another he’s a buddy of the Earles’ college-educated daughter Marianne, whom he has half a mind to take advantage of in the backwash of his bitterly unrequited affection for a girl named Rhoda, who has written him off for an accounting major with an ROTC commission at Brigham Young University. A nominal Mormon, Frank attends church meetings, but he resists the piety of his super-devout mother, and he has strange thoughts about God’s dealings with people:
He got to thinking that God had showed what he thought of people’s sex organs when he put them into such cozy company with their bladders and guts. He had created people with sex organs so they could get married and use them once in a while to multiply and replenish the earth. But even before he started, God knew people wouldn’t stop at multiplying and replenishing the earth. They’d jack off and pet and fornicate just for the hell of it. They’d lust and lasciviate and tickle themselves any old time for fun and pleasure.
One of the satisfactions of Peterson’s prose is his ability to layer coarseness and tenderness, grief and hilarity, startling frankness and elliptical lyricism in a crazy, existential parfait. The quality of the language helps us to access Frank, whose genealogy is strewn with incidents of extremism and madness along the rocky trail of religious perseverance. “Right here is where your grandma went crazy,” Nathan, the smarmy old hypocrite who bunks with Frank tells him, noting a spot on the Earle ranch that once belonged to Frank’s grandparents and is now owned by his boss. “She lost four babies. They’re all buried down in the Escalante cemetery.” Frank’s mother Margaret has visions of hell in her fruit room. The night after Frank’s brother Jeremy emasculates himself with a hunting knife, Frank has his own vision. He hears the Holy Ghost “flying like a big bird overhead,” and sees the eye of God looking down a gunbarrel at him, “following me wherever I walked.” As a marked man in heaven’s scheme of things, Frank feels himself pursued by God all up and down the state.
Typically, however, Peterson integrates tragedy and comedy in The Backslider as effortlessly as he merges Frank and his horse Booger in the fluid motion of climbing a pine-covered hill near Panguitch. After bluffing administrators at Utah State Hospital in Provo into releasing Jeremy—who now refers to himself as “Alice”—Frank tries to protect his brother’s feelings by formally announcing the name change in church, and asking the congregation to respect it. When a couple of deacons snicker, Frank lays into them:
The bishop said, “Sit down Frank, and don’t get yourself lathered up.” He squinted and looked around the hall. “There’s nothing in Scripture that says a man can’t be called by the name he wants to be called by. Come Judgment Day we’re going to see Sister Alice standing on the right hand of the Savior. The Lord has put him among us for a special reason and we better not let the Lord down. Brethren, keep an eye on your kids and if you see them making fun of Sister Alice, larrup the daylights out of them.”
Guilt, depravity and grace—themes that Peterson finds fruitful to explore in The Backslider—are not exactly commonplace in fiction peopled primarily by Mormons. Unaccustomed to characters who wrestle with the barriers between the sensual and the spiritual, and with the tensions between an Old Testament and a New Testament God, some Mormon readers reject Peterson’s work as peculiarly un-Mormon. (His stunning short-story collection, The Canyons of Grace, was published by the University of Illinois Press.) But Peterson, whose own grandmother lost four babies, sees Frank’s struggle in The Backslider as a link to his forebears. “You see it in the Mormon pioneers who were knocked around and hated so much and whom it cost so heavily,” Peterson says. “Frank has a kind of sternness that comes directly out of people who suffer unbearably while believing strongly in a God who cares for them.”
In its essence, The Backslider is a love story, both sacred and profane, romantic and universal. The developing relationship between Frank and Marianne is a brambly thicket of passions and neuroses, the complex entanglement of a self-destructive, deeply conflicted Mormon with a self-defined, headstrong Lutheran. Their honeymoon in Las Vegas, with Marianne pregnant and Frank determined to love her “like a sister” in penance for his premarital predilections, is both painful and hilarious. Frank’s affection for outsiders, eccentrics and underdogs also places him in impossible situations. He finds himself playing virtual midwife to a runaway, polygamous wife, who inveighs on him to ease her labor pains by administering to her with olive oil. Out of touch and practice with this sacred Mormon obligation, he must scrounge the streets of Richfield for both a partner and the accoutrements. He is joined by another Mormon miscreant, a seedy attorney named Russell T. Jarbody; they borrow the consecrated oil from a Richfield mechanic who keeps it in a stoppered Coca Cola bottle in the glove compartment of his pickup.
The long and short of Frank Windham is that he is a Christian (a formulation that he himself would find difficult to accept). But in the image of the Mormon God, Frank is a Christian with body, parts and almost implacable passions. Nearly two-thirds of the way through The Backslider, as Marianne warms up to the idea of becoming a Mormon, we may grow slightly uncomfortable about where the novel appears to be heading. But the final chapter skillfully walks a narrow line between tour de force and tour de farce. The ordinary, denim sleeve of Frank Windham’s and Levi Peterson’s God hides some shrewd and subtle surprises.
The rider raised his eyebrows but he didn’t speak. I love the world, ” Frank said, “I love my wife and my little kid that hasn’t been born yet and I love a big truck under me and I love sunrise out over the Escalante breaks and I love the sound of the diesels running the pumps in the middle of the night. That’s what I love. I hate God ”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. Myself I love God.”
“I know you do.”
“Go on now.”
“There isn’t much more to say, except I scraped all the skin off the back of my hand. It’s in my mind to do the same as Jeremy did. Except when I cut myself off, there won’t be anybody around to stop the bleeding.”
“Why can’t you believe my blood was enough?” Jesus said. “Why do you have to shed yours too?”
“I don’t know.”
“There’s a lot of crazy in your family.”
“Yes, sir, I know it.”
“My training in literature was a liberation for me,” says Peterson, who is a professor of English at Weber State College. “It made it acceptable for me to express my feelings. But on Sunday mornings, I come to a terrible abyss. I usually write until about ten, and then I go to Sacrament Meeting (the service at which Mormons take Holy Communion). Sometimes it occurs to me that a person who lives in two such different worlds must be crazy. But then I think, no, only if you don’t recognize that you live in those two worlds are you crazy. But, I tell myself, there’s no bridge over that abyss. Well, yes, maybe there is a bridge—and I’m it.
Western American Literature, Kenneth B. Hunsaker
Readers who are familiar with Levi Peterson’s short stories in Canyons of Grace and Greening Wheat will welcome this first novel. Set in 1956-57 southcentral Utah, The Backslider is the story of a 20-year-old Mormon ranch hand and his struggle with “the cowboy Jesus.”
Frank J. Windham is a strong, big-handed truck driver and general ramrod for J. Wesley Earle, who manages to make a profit raising hay on his ranch near Escalante. The Earles, Wesley and Clara, and their daughters Marianne and Jeannette, are Lutherans, tolerant of their Mormon neighbors but not interested in getting involved with Mormonism. Born to Mormon parents and taught religion in the typical Mormon fashion, Frank knows little about other religions, and is confused about Mormon theology—so confused, in fact, that this concept of God is that of a vengeful God who has no compassion for those who are weak in the spirit and strong in the flesh. Frank is very strong in the flesh.
Frank’s obsession with his sinful nature and the consequent punishment he expects from God, parallels the obsessions of his family, friend, and other associates. His mother “knows” that eating flesh is sinful; his brother in a frenzy uses his hunting knife to destroy his masculinity; his fellow worker, Nathan Woodbarrow, hasn’t lived with his wife for years because of a stubborn conviction; Farley Chittenden’s “visions” assure him that his particular brand of polygamy is the true way of life; and even Wesley Earle, despite his tolerance of the peculiarities of others, clings stubbornly to faith in science, supporting his wife’s Lutheranism only to avoid trouble.
Some of the statements made about Mormons in The Backslider are mildly sarcastic and may offend Mormon readers who are overly protective about their religion, but Mormon readers who recognize their own human weaknesses will admit that Peterson’s characters are, after all, human. In fact, it is the humanness of the characters that gives this novel strength. But it also benefits from Peterson’s ability to show us the ranches, the small businesses, the towns, the powerful beauty of the southern Utah landscape. This is, indeed, a welcome novel form the hand of an expert story-teller.
Utah Humanities Review, Joe Peterson
In “Trends in Mormon Fiction,” an article that appeared in this newsletter in March 1985, Lavina Fielding Anderson noted that “full-length treatments” of the Mormon experience seemed to be “extremely rare,” and she enthusiastically anticipated the publication of several that she had either heard of or seen as manuscripts. Thanks to Signature Books, two of those novels have been published, and, having read them, I share Ms. Anderson’s enthusiasm.
My favorite of the two, Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, deals boldly with the topic of Mormon sexual repression and guilt. Examining the relationship between religion and insanity, Peterson peoples his novel with fanatics: a Mormon mother who refuses to eat refined sugar or red meats, a man who castrates himself with a hunting knife, a polygamist commanded by God to marry a whore and re-name her Gomer, and congregations of petty neurotics.
The protagonist, Frank Windham, progress from a mildly philosophical sinner who carries a ready supply of condoms and a deck of pornographic playing cards, to a reformed saint whose self-denial escalates into plain old-fashioned masochism. Frank keeps written accounts of his sins, which include gluttony, worldliness, shirking his righteous mother’s advice and hating her bland cooking, resenting his boss, cursing, and “worst of all, day and night his belly was ripe with lust; lechery roamed inside him, rattling every door, trying every window.”
Pivotal in Frank’s change from a sinner to a struggling saint is a vision of a vengeful God who can’t look on sin “with the least degree of allowance.” In the vision, he sees himself through the sights of a gun and senses God’s finger on the trigger, ready to obliterate him at any moment.
Just when Frank believes he’s extricated himself, an old sin comes back to haunt him. An ex-boss’s daughter is pregnant, a crisis that throws Frank into further paroxysms that at their most intense are suicidal. Frank loses himself in the impossibly rigorous demands of his own world view.
At some point, readers may consider Frank hopelessly doomed to self-destruction. Grace is a concept that most Mormons don’t share with other Protestants—at least not in its fullest sense, that of an individual’s complete powerlessness even to play a role in saving humor herself. In my mind, Peterson’s denouncement is an existential affirmation of grace—a seeming oxymoron. It simply is not to be missed.
The novel is alive with black humor and biting irony of the kind that would make Mark Twain himself proud. But unlike Twain, who most critics agree allowed himself too much buffoonery in the last section of Huckleberry Finn, Peterson’s wit maintains a very precise balance. Additionally, Peterson is a consummate Stylist, as his first paragraph shows:
At three-thirty on a May morning, Frank Windham got out of his bunk and said his prayer. He reminded God of their bargain, which was that if God would give him Rhoda, he would live up to every jot and tittle of the commandments. Actually, it was Frank’s bargain, God never having confirmed it. That was the way with God. He never offered Frank any signs, he never gave him any encouragement. He left him penned up with his own perversity like a man caught in a corral with a hostile bull.
Peterson recently told me that a Mormon home teacher thanked him for writing the novel, saying that he was using it to reactivate the jack-Mormons whom he visited. Neo-orthodox Mormons may find the novel reprehensible; however, those hovering around the edges will find it refreshingly candid—perhaps an omen of future breadth, tolerance and openness of discussion.
Association for Mormon Letters, Bruce Jorgensen
It’s safe to say that Levi Peterson’s novel The Backslider will not appeal to everyone. (That’s about all it’s safe to say about this book.) There is little doubt that some readers will be offended, shocked, disgusted by it. But for the rest of us it’s a blast of fresh air. Laughing, weeping, rejoicing over Frank Windham and his friends, we might want to compare The Backslider to the best of Flannery O’Conner—except that here is more bawdy hilarity, more compassion, more tenderness, more love. Maybe it’s Levi’s skill, or his experience, or even his theology. But whatever it is, we’ve got ourselves one helluva book here.
“A Mormon cult classic, even though we’re not a cult anymore. Like the Book of Mormon itself, The Backslider deftly yet humbly afflicts the comforted and comforts the afflicted. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll never eat oysters again. And after meeting Cowboy Jesus, you’ll (thankfully) never be the same.”
—Kathryn Lynard Soper, founding editor of Segullah
“Be warned: you cannot “unsee” The Backslider. As Frank’s guilt-ridden, hormone-ravaged, God-hunted soul is laid bare, female readers will cringe in horror, while male readers cringe in recognition.”
Stephen Carter, editor, Sunstone