Mormon Lit: Heaven Knows Why

Jackson Whitetop, a no-account loafer, lives alone in the home that his grandfather Moroni built. Moroni is no longer with us, but he has a good job in the Compiling Office of the Accounting Section of the Current History Division of the Records Department. After several requests, Moroni gets clearance to pay Jackson a visit to deliver a message from beyond: you are my posterity, and that means something! You will marry Katie Jensen, the bishop’s daughter, the town beauty, and the woman who recently became engaged to Henry Brown, a respectable and prosperous businessman!

Moroni pays his visit. Heaven Knows Why tells the story of how Jackson, Katie, Henry–and the rest of a rural Utah burg circa 1945–react. Moroni’s message, and whether not Jackson will render it prophetic, structures and intensifies the story, but the accompanying subplots, social commentary, and humor–most of all humor–make Heaven Knows Why not just good reading for a Mormon book, but plain good reading.

Taylor’s Mormons are recognizably human and thus interesting: sort of the opposite of the unsettlingly sweet and other-worldly illustrations common in certain devotional periodicals (The Ensign, The Watchtower, etc.). Yet in portraying Mormons struggling to hold on to testimonies or display charity for their fellow saints, Taylor is far from threatening. On the contrary, he has plenty of sympathy for his characters and a deft touch when it comes to making laughs out of shortcomings that contemporary official Mormon discourse tends to sweep under so many rhetorical rugs.

Taylor understands how humor plays on anxiety–how it approaches and even transgresses boundaries–and that in doing so it simultaneously feeds off the associated nervous energy and neutralizes it. Taylor’s humorous use of the Word of Wisdom is a prime example: coffee and whiskey and the substitutes Mormons devise for them (not always successfully) make repeated appearances. In these moments and others, Taylor strikes a balance: the situations and characters are comical, but not farcical. Behind the humor lies human frailty that demands a human response.

Heaven Knows Why is an easy read, I think deceptively easy. Taylor raises and explores significant themes. “The Trouble,” a long-running conflict that divides the local ward, brought to mind this adamant pronouncement of the Savior: “he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil … Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.” Likewise, Moroni’s determination to stop Jackson from wasting his life away is a hearts of fathers turning to their children story. Finally, the overarching theme (think of the title) is divine providence: Taylor’s thesis seems to be that in this world, even at the most chaotic moments, God oversees and directs all. Even our doubts and sins, in the world of Taylor’s novel, God turns to bring about his purposes.

Heaven Knows Why‘s principal weakness is the neatness with which the plot and characters come to be tied together in the end. I like Dickens, but I groan every time I get two thirds through a Great Expectations or Tale of Two Cities only to realize that every plot line and every character, no matter how absurd it seems, will converge in the last seven pages of the novel. In giving his novel the ending that at least a small part of every reader wants, Taylor sacrifices some of the illusion the first two hundred pages of the book creates.

But this is a minor complaint. Heaven Knows Why is a delightful read: I recommend it. Incidentally, reading Heaven Knows Why will deliver more than pleasure. It will also give you some little understanding of a moment in the history of Mormon letters. Heaven Knows Why sits at a high water mark of mainstream acceptance of Mormon literature: it originally appeared in 1948 as The Mysterious Way, a six-part serial in Collier’s Magazine. Here’s hoping that Mormon-themed fiction will make a return to major magazines, publishing houses, and the like.

5 thoughts on “Mormon Lit: Heaven Knows Why”

  1. I read the book several years ago, and I really enjoyed it. It was funny and light. I particularly enjoyed the pious, prosperous villain, and how he was redeemed in the end.

  2. I resurrected _Heaven Knows Why_ from its cardboard box tomb a few days ago. Being relatively directionless, and remembering that I once enjoyed reading, I sat down with it.

    I agree with you that it reeks of Dickens. Not that I’ve ever read Dickens. But I did see Polanski’s recent Oliver Twist. Oliver was portrayed as this rag doll thrown from situation to situation. He only comes out on top because someone with more spunk (the nice girl shacking up with the evil guy) has the guts to actually do something hard. And the author was on Oliver’s side.

    At first, in Taylor’s book, I was interested to see how this angel and his lazy descendant would come out. But once the message was delivered, the angel disappears leaving us with a fellow whose function it is, like Oliver, to draw other characters with more spunk than he has into the plot. Were it not for numerous machinations that were already in swing, the story would have fallen on its face.

    I liked the book. It was light and funny. I thought it did a great job at treating Mormons like human beings and telling a story that didn’t have to bear the weight of “THE CHURCH IS TRUE!”

    We need more of those stories. Taylor makes me want to write one of them.

    However, by about the end of the second act, I had completely lost any sense of suspense. I knew from previous cliffhangers that even though it was impossible for Jackson to pull himself out of a predicament, someone else would (for a a completely plausible reason that Taylor did a great job of explaining every time). For example, when Jackson gets left at an abandoned mine 40 miles from where he’s supposed to get married (or eat the business end of a shotgun), a guy who is building the foundation of his house just happens to be there gathering timber.

    The fact was, Jackson’s character arc was complete at the end of the third chapter when the angel leaves, he turns from lazy to unlazy. After that, all he has to do is bide his time and let the events flow.

    Maybe it’s a kind of Zen novel.

    So, as far as Jackson’s character arc is concerned, I give it a thumbs down. But I don’t think that’s what the book was about. I think _Heaven Knows Why_ was about the audiences wondering how the story was going to get itself out of bad situations through the heavy, unrepentant clanging of deus ex machina.

    And the story did that really well.

  3. Stephen:
    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you dug up your copy of Heaven Knows Why and gave it a read.

    Resort to deus ex machina is generally a serious narrative transgression. But is that so in Taylor’s story? Taylor’s view of humanity (fallen, muddling along) and God (watching over, intervening, transforming chaos into blessing) seems to require it. In other words, deus ex machina (of a sort) is not an interruption and an easy solution to narrative problems, but the core of the story itself.

  4. S.P. (Is that what I call you, or do you have a first name you let people use?):

    I totally agree that the machinations were the center of the plot. I don’t know enough about Samuel Taylor (next to nothing, actually) to be able to say what his worldview was or how it might have affected his writing.

    However, just looking at it from a structural point of view, I’d be more willing to bet that he was following the conventions of the screwball comedy than making a theological statement.

    I’d be interested in hearing more of your ideas on how this novel reflects Mormon theology, especially because, it seems to me, the book (if taken theologically seriously) seems to propound a kind of predestination. At the end, Apostle Black, who is in charge of events in the very near future, tells Moroni Skinner in the celestial kingdom that the events of the novel went exactly according to plan.

    So, in a way, the novel is kind of anti-agency. Which doesn’t seem very Mormon to me. But, come to think of it, perhaps the novel reflects a more Protestant worldview that could have been current in popular Mormon thought.

    One thing that interests me is the idea that the main character isn’t really the main character. That, rather, the guiding force behind the events (a.k.a. God) is the main character. In that way, is _Heaven Knows Why?_ an example of metafiction?

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