Shawn Vestal’s darkly provocative story collection rivets a reader’s attention early on. And like the Mormon faith, which visits itself mightily upon many of these stories, it never really lets you go.
In “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” eternity plays out in an endless reel of memories from one’s life. Everyone remains the age they were at death, and the pain, loneliness and heartbreak they lived dogs them throughout the afterlife. “Nobody tells you anything,” reports the hapless narrator from the year 2613, “No instruction sheet, no welcome wagon.”
Family reunions prove particularly uncomfortable in the afterlife, and regret rules the eternal day. “Here is something I wish I’d told my son and never have,” the narrator confesses, “There is no peace here. … If you want peace, you have to find it in the life you left behind.”
That may prove dicey. Elsewhere in eternity, a soul from the Middle Ages reflects on the plague years. “ ‘The Black Death,’ he said, with an air of pride. ‘You knew you were alive. You knew the value of a day.’ ”
Steeped mostly in the rural West, some of these stories by Vestal, a columnist for The Spokesman-Review, convey a tragic insight into commonplace events reminiscent of the stories of Raymond Carver. An ex-con father mentors his teenage son on the fine points of burglary. A deadbeat boyfriend cons his girl’s unsuspecting Mormon parents for money to float his decidedly gentile lifestyle. An aging druggie plays out the last of his ranch family’s largesse.
Throughout these well-crafted stories, Vestal’s prose captures the gritty poignancy of Western life. Here’s a description of a tourist’s “pocket dog” at a resort. “From (her) purse emerged the tiny head of a creature with a furious puff of Einstein hair. Like a rat being born. The rat barked and hung a tongue the color of a pencil eraser.
“Out here, we’re bound to feel a dog like that is just wrong.”
Other characters are haunted by their Mormon pasts. A young World War I ship’s gunner tries to conform to farm and church life after the trauma of war, and fails utterly. A farm girl who survived the brutal wagon march west from Nauvoo resists an arranged “celestial marriage” to an aging Mormon bishop – until a plague of locusts descends on their valley.
The last story in the collection, “Diviner,” delves deeply into early Mormon history. It’s told through the 1825 journal entries of Isaac Hale, a Susquehanna Valley farmer who chipped in to hire a young Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, who comes to the valley as a clairvoyant treasure seeker. He is a charlatan and locates no treasure, but sets his divining stones on Hale’s lovely and intelligent daughter, Emma.
The story is masterful in its unfolding and lays an insightful and philosophical foundation for the stories that proceed it. Vestal breaks important new ground in his exploration of some of the darker legacies that have shaped the American West.