Short Story Friday: “Jim of Provo” by Tim Slover

Now that all that poetry nonsense is over* we can get back to the good stuff: short stories. And with the return of Short Story Friday, I hope some of you out there will dig back into some of the archives and come up with some good finds. For example, the following story is the only Sunstone story submitted so far.

Title: Jim of Provo (links to search results with PDF download of the story)

Author: Tim Slover

Publication Info: Sunstone, June 1998

Submitted by: Andrew H.

Why?: “Modern-day Job. Interesting switches of tone from the somewhat silly scenes in heaven, to the serious scenes of a suicidal Jim. The biggest problem is that the formatting is off, it was in my original copy of the magazine, and I see it still is off in the PDF. There are a few lines of the story lost.”

Wm adds a teaser line for you: “God’s coyness about free will and determinism gets my goat.”

Content warning: As Andrew mentions, this story alternates the events leading up to and the act of suicide (slight spoiler, but the act isn’t really the point of the story) with humor. I think that it’ll work for most readers, but if you have particular sensitivities to the subject, you might want to pass this one up.

Participate:

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* I play the curmudgeon, but seriously: many thanks to all the AMV bloggers and commenters who participated and the other Mormon lit bloggers who embraced the spirit of the month. And a big thank you to Laura Craner for sparking the whole thing. Yes, I know that poetry shouldn’t need a month, but the reality is that I, at least, often avoid it and so this was a good reminder of what’s to like about the form.

18 thoughts on “Short Story Friday: “Jim of Provo” by Tim Slover”

  1. .

    I have a hard time believing in Jim as a suicide. I can’t get a firm grasp on what exactly his emotions are. He doesn’t seem depressed based on his inner dialogue, but some of his actions look like the trappings of depression. And while that might help me be sympathetic to the immortals, but since it made Jim less understandable and thus less sympathetic, I call it a net loss.

    Frankly, I don’t understand the ending.

    Those things said, I love the line about the devil not being superstitious and the relationship twixt god and devil. Those parts work quite well.

  2. It’s true that the interactions between God and the devil were clever. Still, the story leaves me with questions about the author’s intent.

    I assume spoilers are OK here, right? If you haven’t read it, go read it — it’s only a few pages.

    Given the ending, the story seems to be a parable with a theological message, albeit a rather strange one. According to story, Jim’s depression doesn’t come from the devil. The devil’s trials/temptations are unimpressive (even laughable) compared to the his depression (which he got from how God created him? or from his own free will?) which was bad enough to finish him off. So the moral seems to be “God’s only testing you on the trials you can endure — you may get trials in life that you can’t endure, but at least you won’t be punished for them in the hereafter.” Except that the story claims that all other suicides go to hell. Hmm.

  3. Oh, and one more *spoiler* question:

    What was the purpose of having him kill himself right in front of the Provo temple? Was he trying to send God a message — or hoping to go straight to God (even though he doesn’t appear to have any thoughts of God or of the church in the story)? Is it some sort of symbolism or word-play with the fact that he shot himself in the temple?

    I can’t help but wonder about the people who will happen upon that scene in the morning, not to mention the kid’s parents…

  4. .

    Exactly. I think that was why. This time he will be noticed, and in a big way.

    But you’ve hit on another problem—the age of Jim is hard to nail down. I finally figured out he was in college (BYU?) but it wasn’t easy. And he apparently has no parents. Which I see more as laziness than as a great artistic choice….

  5. And that’s the real problem with alternating the humor with the moments of a man leading up to his suicide:

    Jim is too pathetic and his portrayal both not well sketched enough and yet too realistic for this to really work as dark humor.

    But it’s worth reading for its portrayal of Satan (which has some interesting, strongly Mormon elements to it), for its attempt to posit how those who commit suicide could be redeemed by God (although note that Christ doesn’t really play a role here — unless God is Christ in this one [which then means that God the Father doesn’t play a role]), and for its post-modern qualities.

    Part of the point of Short Story Friday is to not only increase our knowledge of what has already been written (so we can understand where we have been) but also to provoke some thoughts of “I could do better” or “interesting approach, but here’s where it falls down.” Fiction is a dialogue. If you aren’t arguing somewhat with your predecessors, then your work risks being naive and/or pedestrian.

  6. But it’s worth reading for its portrayal of Satan (which has some interesting, strongly Mormon elements to it),

    That’s true. At some points you almost sympathize with the Satan character or pity him, yet the author shows — from Satan’s own POV — that he’s motivated by bitterness and envy, even if he doesn’t admit it to himself. The portrayal of God is more problematic, since it’s not clear why He would engage Satan in such games.

  7. .

    If you aren’t arguing somewhat with your predecessors, then your work risks being naive and/or pedestrian.

    Very true.

  8. I agree, chanson. I think that this would be much more powerful and interesting if a) the parallels with Job were stronger and b) some of the workings of God were more clearly teased out. Although it’s hard to do that with Satan as the POV character, which is perhaps inevitable (c.f. Blake on Milton).

    Of course, in that case the ending would have to be changed and so you’d lose whatever narrative power and doctrinal speculation it currently offers.

  9. Slover’s choice to set the ending at the Provo Temple may have been influenced by a real event early in 1991. A BYU student who suffered from a bi-polar disorder, and who was a son of a professor, shot himself to death just outside the gate on the sidewalk around the back of the Temple, late in the evening on a snowy night. I was living in the basement of a house across the street at the time, and a jogger who found the body rang our door to call the police. I went out to see the body, which was essentially headless. It seemed so unreal. So maybe remembering that experience made the story especially interesting to me.

  10. Several years ago I did a paper on The Book of Job as a ceremony. We tend to ignore the opening as just the frame story or mcguffin (Alfred Hitchcock’s name for the event that gets the action going), mostly because if you take the opening seriously you’d be reading a satire or indictment of God. One way of looking at the opening of Job is that God is mitigating something he knows will happen anyway. Suffering is unavoidable, as is temptation. I think the frame story works the same way in “Jim of Provo.” God cannot prevent Jim’s suicide, but he can mitigate it.

    But first a digression up “the long, winding hill in the nice Provo residential area,” which is the street I grew up on, about a block north of my house. We moved there in 1960 and the Slovers bought a house a block east of us a few years later–right across the street from the Wasatch fault, I believe.

    The hills east of our neighborhood (and significantly higher) were largely undeveloped and there was another road off the hills, so one snowy day the wildmouse was closed and we were all out there sledding. With luck you could get up enough speed going downhill to take you along the flat part to the next hill and down it, maybe a half mile ride all together. That day is one of the magical memories of my childhood. Tim has mentioned his own wonderful memories of the neighborhood, and when my wife and baby and I came back to Provo a few years after grad school and lived in my parents’ basement for a while, Tim and his family had bought the last undeveloped lot on the wildmouse and built a house there, and Tim was elders’ quorum president.

    He gave some memorable lessons, including an Easter lesson in which he pointed out that while the Atonement paid the price of sin, Jesus’s resurrection is what made possible resurrection for everyone else.

    So when he describes Jim noticing the “house on the right, green shutters, green garage door, looked new. Probably smartass creeps lived there; probably if I walked up to their stupid green door and knocked on it, they wouldn’t even answer it, just stare at me like idiots through the glass on the side,” he’s describing his own house.

    I wasn’t sure what to make of Tim including his house in the story, for several years. I supposed it was a nice postmodern joke. Then someone–Cherry Silver?–gave a paper at AML about “Jim of Provo” and mentioned Tim coming and talking with her English class about the story. She said he wrote it after one of his students committed suicide.

    I suppose this story is a fictional wrestling with the same things M. Russell Ballard was working through in his “Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some Things We Do Not” (Ensign, October 1987 http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=6efa71ec9b17b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1)

    If the portrait of Jim is not terribly full it is possible Tim chose the Job story as his model because he is less interested in explaining something that may be inexplicable than in bearing witness to–that is letting us see–God’s power to save, in spite of death and hell.

  11. .

    I must say I like that explanation a lot. And it stops me from making the comment I’ve been continuously forgetting to make.

    Incidentally, I’m reading Dean Hughes’s Hooper Haller to my sons right now and a BYU suicide is mentioned as a pure mystery, something which, for the other characters, can only force them to look inwards and see what there is to see within.

  12. Theric,
    It always amazes me how quickly you respond. I liked Hooper Haller, haven’t read Jenny Haller yet though. I had a class in writing for children from Dean Hughes shortly after he published Hooper Haller. He and my brother Dennis were in grad school together at the U of Warshington. “The University 2nd Ward was the most liberal in the church. We used to sing ‘Choose the Left.'”

    When I took his class he was working on Switching Tracks, a portrait of a young boy and an old man. A moving story about the aftermath of suicide. When your boys get around 5th or 6th grade they might enjoy Soldier Boys, a fine piece of work–makes a lovely companion to Donna Jo Napoli’s Stones In Water. (I had read her medieval story The
    Magic Circle, about a woman accused of witchcraft and a brother and sister lost in the woods, and when my son brought home Stones in Water I found a very different side of her.)

  13. .

    I read both the Haller books as a kid, but Hooper was the only one I inherited from my grandmother. But it has a ballplayer on the cover and baseball is all my oldest ever thinks about. And mean that as literally as possible.

    One thing about Dean (I took a class from him too, although in 2002) is how well he writes baseball. He is VERY good. I need to buy the early-readers baseball series he wrote.

    Another great young book he wrote was Family Pose although I like the romps like the Chestnut Corporation more (great intro for young kids wondering why the economy’s in the tank).

  14. Dean told us a little about the background for Hooper Haller. I think it started out as an article or story for Boy’s Life, which got cancelled, and eventually he reworked it as a Mormon story.

    I’m not a sports fan so I just find the baseball passages confusing. I woke up one morning, turned on the radio and heard Red Barber reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and understood immediately he had just died. He used to visit on Thursday mornings with Renee (reenee, he called her) Montagne on NPR’s Morning Edition, talking about his garden and telling stories about his days broadcasting baseball games. I especially liked the story about broadcasting a Red Sox game and watching a storm move up the Charles river toward the game.

    One of my July 4th treats is hearing his voice as I listen to the NPR cast reading the Declaration of Independence.

    He talked some about the Negro Leagues and how Branch Rickey prepared Jackie Robinson to face white audiences by swearing at him and insulting him for a couple of hours. I wanted to find out more, which eventually led me to Black Diamond, by Patricia McKissack and Frederick McKissack, Jr., a mother-son team. Really interesting with a good bibliography. The Negro-leaguers wrote a lot. (If you want a lot of good information about things, read children’s books–or write them.)

    I had always thought the Negro Leagues were minor-league farm teams because the phrase I hear most often about Jackie Robinson is “called up to the majors,” but the leagues and teams were started by black team owners and barnstorming players who were shut out from white-owned teams and leagues. Jackie Robinson’s success contributed a lot to the demise of the Negro Leagues as integration obviated the need for separate leagues.

  15. .

    I think MLB would be healthier had the Negro Leagues become coequal with with the AL and NL (like the Pacific League almost did). Then the old teams would not all have a history of segregation.

    Of course, it might also be true that then we would have inherited “race” rivalry between today’s integrated teams….. I smell the world’s first sports alternative history.

    Baseball is the poetic sport. It’s inspired some fine writing over the years.

  16. Back to the story (a month late…)

    Like others, I found the Satan parts amusing, Jim underdeveloped, and the typesetting errors maddening.

    I wonder if Tim was thinking of himself as the English teacher?

    I guess that in the end, I have to say that this is entertaining – Tim pulls off a great voice on Satan’s part, as one might expect from a playwright of his caliber – but underdeveloped.

  17. Jonathan,
    I think Tim probably did think of himself as the English teacher. He describes his house in the story. Read comment 10 for some background.

    I’m not sure what Tim could have done to develop Jim more. I think part of the point of the story is that suicide is very difficult to understand. That’s why the story opens with Satan speaking, that is, with a character who has no understanding of truth, no way to understand truth, and no desire for truth.

    If Tim wanted to really fully explore and develop Jim’s character he could have written a much longer piece, but I suspect he chose the form he did as a testament to the way suicide defies our understanding or explanation.

  18. Maybe. But if the point is that Jim’s character “defies understanding,” then I would think that Tim would have either (a) stayed out of his head, or (b) shown something in his head that we as readers (and possibly he as a character) weren’t able to understand.

    I guess that my feeling was that Jim was a casualty along the way of some thought-provoking ideas Tim was exploring – like the notion that Satan’s temptations in a Job-like scenario could be a redemptive act (which I don’t think Tim quite pulled off here – though that may have to do with those missing lines).

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