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.