This Mormon Defector Has a Tale to Tell
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is a strange literary gestalt.
By Tobias Carroll
It’s the kind of wacky combination that gives this three-time author a chance to appeal to the literary establishment and the indie world alike. And so far, his taste is working: He’s been praised by The New Yorker and was the 2014 recipient of the PEN / Robert W. Bingham Prize for his short-story collection Godforsaken Idaho (previous winners include Jonathan Safran Foer, for Everything Is Illuminated, and Paul Harding, for the Pulitzer Prize–winning Tinkers). Novelist William Boyle, who has reviewed Vestal’s work as a critic, says his short stories are “grappling with the big questions head-on in a way that feels fresh.”
In April, Vestal, 50, trotted out his latest: Daredevils, a fictional invocation of Knievel, that ’70s icon who once attempted a jump over an Idaho canyon. Vestal, a newspaperman and former Mormon, tells OZY from his home in Spokane, Washington, that Knievel has always fascinated him, beyond the romance of adventurism. “There’s just so much ugliness and vulgarity and criminality wrapped up in him,” Vestal says, “as well as all of this overt patriotism.”
Also featured in Daredevils: Jason, the protagonist, and Loretta, a young woman raised in a fundamentalist Mormon community where polygamy is part of daily life. Daredevils is set 20 years after the 1953 Short Creek raid, in which members of a polygamist community in Arizona were taken into government custody. Monologues by Knievel are woven throughout the narrative.
While we’re drawn to the badassery of Daredevils, many will — and already do — turn to Vestal’s former religion. He tells us he writes as an “ex-Mormon,” someone skeptical about religion. David Haglund of The New Yorker, who reviewed Godforsaken Idaho for Slate, noted Vestal’s handling of Mormonism in the stories. “Vestal pretty clearly writes as an ex-believer,” he said, “but maintains sympathy for and interest in the religion he left behind.”
Any time I try to write another religious point of view, I feel like I’m fumbling it.
Vestal can’t point to any one decisive moment of losing his faith, instead describing the process as “quite gradual.” Of course, being Mormon, he had a forcing point: when he told his mother he wouldn’t be doing his mission. He says by then, they’d long disagreed: “It was a huge source of friction my last year at home. We fought a lot, and I was pretty insufferable about things. Her heart was breaking, I guess.” But mom didn’t send anyone chasing after him. They are, in the end, OK. And Vestal really just wanted to interact with the larger world, he says: “It wasn’t theology. It was just, ‘I want to go out there, where it seems like cooler things are happening.’ ”
Writing about faith wasn’t easy — he avoided it at first. But more recently, he’s come around. “I don’t have any other kind of material. If I want to write about faith or belief or losing faith in particular, that’s what I know. Any time I try to write another religious point of view, I feel like I’m fumbling it.”
Godforsaken brought Vestal into territory more corporate than the world of his former faith, though, when he ventured onto Amazon’s turf. The collection was published by Little A, an imprint of Amazon Publishing, which affected the willingness of certain bookstores to stock the book, despite its indie feel. “Many independent bookstores were vocal about their unwillingness to carry Amazon’s titles,” recalls Paul Constant, co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books and former books editor for Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger. (A spokeswoman for Amazon said the company makes its books available “to anyone who would like to carry them.”)
But before the business of money and publishing, Vestal was a small-time journalist who’d always known he wanted to be a writer. A college dropout, Vestal opted to go straight into journalism, heading to work at his hometown newspaper. It wasn’t until he was in his 40s that he decided to pursue an MFA at Eastern Washington University. Among the writers with whom he studied was Samuel Ligon, who has since become a friend. “I feel like he’s almost a co-author of some of those stories,” Vestal says. “He didn’t write anything, but his influence was large.”
The birth of Vestal’s son, which took place while he was getting his MFA, has also influenced his work. (His own father’s brushes with the law when Vestal was young were directly addressed in a 2013 Kindle single, “A.K.A. Charles Abbott.”) As for what’s next, Vestal says, “A couple of ideas for novels that I probably should be humble about mentioning, because who knows?”
But he did give us a hint: One might involve the Church of Latter-day Saints, this time focusing on an ancestor who is “all wound up in the history of the Mormon Church in a really fascinating way.” Some small details have gotten in his way, however. “[I]t involved 18th-, 19th-century history, and you start to write that, and all a sudden, your characters are at lunch, and you don’t know what to do. What’s lunch like? I don’t know. It’s a little daunting,” Vestal says. And yet, he seems to think he won’t escape it. “I think I’ll find myself back there, in some way.”