Why this book? (a question about Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven)

I try to avoid reading with an agenda. I try to let my mind be open to the words and their flow, let them wash over me and sweep me away to new perspectives, ideas, and feelings. Some books feel like a babbling brook–lots of chatter but no real pull. Others feel like a hurricane– the prose buffets me with overwhelming force that leaves mental and emotional devastation in its wake. (By the way, my prayers are with those in the South right now. God bless you all.) No matter what the force or style though, I try to be open when it comes to reading. I try to jump in with both feet. But with Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven I was unable to do that. A question kept my mind bobbing around: why this book?

There was a lot of buzz about On the Road to Heaven when it first came out. And then again when it won both the AML award and Whitney award for novel of the year. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t shake my questions: What was it about Newell’s autobiographical novel that so many people liked? How did he please both the literary/academic crowd (as the AML is perceived to be) and the mainstream fiction crowd (as the Whitney’s are perceived to be)? Or in other words, why this book?

My question made me fairly skeptical as I thumbed through the first few pages. So did his strange choice of genre (What is an “autobiographical novel” anyway? Aren’t a lot of novels autobiographical? How was this supposed to be any different? [This wikipedia entry helped with those questions.]). And, I don’t know if I should admit this out loud but, I’m not a Kerouac fan. I’ve never actually finished one of his books. They just seem so contrived. And if this book was an homage to those books then I was not sure how I was going to get through it.

Of course when I discovered that Kit West, the main character, grew up in the Colorado mountains (so close to home!) I began to get into it. Then as he explored his inner hippy I couldn’t help but laugh–so many people in Boulder are still like that! And then when Annie came into Kit’s life I found myself rooting for the characters. When I finished the book I was a little bit sad to see it end but I also knew the answer to my question. I knew why On the Road to Heaven was so well received: it has a little bit of everything. It mixes so many genres and LDS tropes it makes a variety of reader’s feel welcome.

The first thing I noticed was that this book was a love story–and we all know how much the LDS audience craves love stories. The center of the story is Kit’s aching need for Annie and the Saturday’s Warrior/ “Circle of our Love” feel is SO LDS. Those kinds of stories are, I believe, central to LDS literature because our belief in forever families is central to our faith. Newell does an excellent job of honing in on those feelings and helping us remember why we love those stories so much.

The other major driving force in the book is Kit’s search for Truth and the testing of his testimonial limits. These ideas are explored through missionary work–another major LDS genre and core belief–through both Kit’s conversion experience and the mission he himself serves.

His conversion experience of reading the conveniently available Book of Mormon as fast as possible and immediately accepting it is a narrative told time and again in fast and testimony meetings. You can find it in God’s Army and Angel of the Danube. You can find it in the Book of Mormon itself. Then Kit’s first prayer, like Emily M. at Blog Segullah notes, is practically pulled straight from scripture.

When Kit serves his own mission, the crazy antics of the missionaries, moments where words of wisdom are poured from heaven, the miraculous finding of lost investigators, quirky companions, depressed days of endless tracting, and even the voluptuous and forward Colombian women, are quintessential missionary stories. We’ve all heard them at ward socials and in youth firesides. The juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, the miraculous and the mundane, are what define missionary moments–whether you’re full time or just occasionally tracting with your local elders. And again Newell is able to crystallize those experiences through his own.

Of course the main thing that On the Road to Heaven is is a testimony. It is an honest love song to the faith that makes life worth living. And that is why Newell’s “autobiographical novel” choice is so important. This book isn’t just another one of those Mormon stories that puts a character in trouble and then has them conveniently drive by the temple and get inspired out of harm’s way so it can teach a lesson. And it isn’t a book that piles on sin after sin after sin with no hope or repentance or mercy in sight. On the Road to Heaven is a real story about real problems–some of which are easily solved and others so complex they could never be summed up in a thirty minute Sunday school lesson –and real people struggling with things we usually don’t talk about in Church (but we sometimes wish we could). And, the narrative keeps telling us over and over, it’s all true. Every bit of it is true.

If that isn’t the kind of story that LDS people like tell then I don’t know what is.

In the end, for me, Newell’s book was like the tide. It rose up around me and covered me and turned me again and again. Then, when it was done, it left a lot of interesting things for me to examine.