On my way out to Utah last week to attend my sister Melyngoch’s farewell and see her off on her mission to Sweden, my plane was delayed in Denver, and I violated the budget my husband and I agreed upon just hours before and bought the Atlantic’s summer fiction issue. (The Zelophehad family is not noted for the ability to delay gratification.) After a hilarious story by Marjorie Kemper about a priest who gets into massive debt trying to help his poverty-stricken parishioners entitled “Specific Gravity” and Tobias Wolff’s excellent “Bible,” I flipped to Bradford Tice’s rather tiresomely predictable story about Mormon missionaries. (Religion is clearly in the air, even among the secular MFA crowd.)
As a returned missionary, I found certain aspects of Tice’s story pretty implausible. It seems evident to me that the author either never served a mission or else deliberately altered certain basic realities of mission life so drastically as to make the experience unrecognizable. The story features two elders–Case, a smooth-talking cynic who baptizes by manipulation and evidently believes in nothing except his own power to make district leader, and Joseph, his earnest, socially inhibited companion. The familiar pairing of innocent and cad could have been interesting, but it wasn’t.
Elder Case sheds his garments, goes swimming, samples a joint, sells real estate in heaven (God has a condo for you!) and in the story’s predictable final scene, has sex. Elder Joseph, on the other hand, is conflicted for most of the story, torn between his memories of his parents’ devotion and his discomfort with his companion’s suave, relentless scorn for the slightest show of piety. But Elder Joseph’s a greenie (a term that appears nowhere in the story); he’s been in the field only three months. After reading about the baseball baptisms and ice-cream baptisms and even mental-hospital baptisms, and recalling the most cynical elders and sisters from my own mission, I can well believe there are missionaries who trade their garments in for Fruit-of-the-Looms, jump naked into water-filled quarries and all the rest of it, but what I can’t believe is that their greenie companions stand idly by while they do. Fresh from the MTC (also never mentioned) and devout as he obviously is, Elder Joseph’s first impulse should be to call his mission president and rat his ratty companion out. (And for that matter, if Elder Case has been engaging in excommunicable offenses for the past year, word of his behavior has certainly been circulated by his former companions and has likely reached his evidently nonexistent mission president.) The burden of proof, it seems to me, is on the author to explain why such an obvious and clearly prescribed course of action never even crosses Joseph’s mind. But Tice has stranded Joseph in a world without a larger context; he is evidently entirely alone with his companion in a way that seems difficult to believe of a mission in the late-twentieth-century United States. The only mention of the mission home (incorrectly called “mission headquarters”) is the observation, “As long as the convert puts out his cigarette on the way down to the water, he is worthy.” That’s all the instruction Elder Joseph can recall from his arrival in the field? Not likely.
The story is marred by small errors that make the whole ring a little false. Joseph wears a “temple garment,” but a nineteen-year-old in 1979 or later should be wearing two pieces. Joseph recalls “the perfume his mother wore on Sundays when she attended chapel,” but a character raised in Salt Lake would refer to “church” or “sacrament meeting.” And for that matter, he recalls his mother addressing him as “Joseph”; is Joseph his last name or his first? Joseph asks Case why he never calls his parents on p-day; has any mission in recent memory permitted such frequent contact? Case’s determination to make district leader is itself a problem; the only criterion is evidently the number of baptisms one produces. I can well believe that numbers might be the only criterion for leadership positions in certain missions, but I doubt the fact would be so baldly acknowledged. (And Case aspires to be district leader of the Knoxville branch, another slip-up; a missionary is district leader of an area or a zone, while a branch is a geographical division of members, not of missionaries.)
The story’s inconsistent temporal setting is a problem that shouldn’t have required any particular knowledge of Mormonism to correct. An investigator has a son in the Vietnam War, and just a few lines later, the priesthood-granting revelation of 1978 is mentioned, while in the next column a Goth girl plays a CD. Unless we’re meant to understand the investigator’s son or his presence in Vietnam as a hallucination–and while the investigator is a somewhat forlorn and shabby character, nothing suggests that we are–the time frame is clearly contradictory.
But in my view the most implausible aspect of the story is Case’s complete lack of cynicism about his own cynicism, his utterly undisguised salesmanship, exhibited in obvious remarks like, “The ends always justify the means.” Tice doesn’t give hypocrisy nearly enough credit. In my experience, anyway, hypocrisy and evil rarely acknowledge what they do in such stark Machiavellian terms. Anyone who’s as good a salesman as Case would be good enough to sell his companion–and to some extent himself–a religious version of what he’s doing. Case should couch his manipulative ploys in Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants or Missionary Guide language as he explains them to his companion. Ida, the forlorn investigator whose son is in Vietnam, should be “special,” not “soft in the head”; the poor should be “humble” not “pliable”; the way to baptize is by “boldly following the Spirit” not by “force of will.”
And then there’s the final sex scene that evidently converts the voyeuristic Joseph to Case’s hard willfulness. So much of contemporary secular culture has evidently never recovered from its delight in the violation of Victorian taboo. The sexual revolution has not really embraced sexuality as a part of adult life; what it has done is popularized the repeated violation of what it can only understand as prudery, the expose of sexual reserve characteristic of seven-year-olds giggling at forbidden body parts. The trouble with Mormons and Mormon missionaries is that, like nuns, we are such irresistible fodder for this kind of pointing and tittering; for a sexually immature society, the most salient fact of missionary life is the law of chastity. What’s really unfortunate that Tice has elided all of the rich, contradictory aspects of devotion for such an unoriginal exposure of the sexual transgression a secular world is compelled to find at its root. Joseph’s corruption by proxy sex could have been a searing conclusion had the story actually engaged the complexities of the religious life. But with every religious impulse flattened into slack-jawed idiot piety by the Machiavellian voice of Case, it’s hard to see why Joseph’s ultimate corruption even much matters. A fall like the one Tice wants Joseph to take requires a far more robust religious life than he seems able to imagine or portray.