Title: The Road Show
Author: Braden Bell
Publisher: Bonneville Books/Cedar Fort
Genre: Adult Mormon Fiction
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 128
Binding: Trade Paperback
Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.
Note: I received a free electronic copy of this book from the author, in trade for a free electronic copy of my book, No Going Back.
Road shows are a familiar icon of Mormon life. The following passage from Braden Bell’s debut novel provides a horrible — and hilarious — illustration of the depths to which they can descend:
“Our last road show was a Sister Cartwright extravaganza about the Word of Wisdom. The big climax took place in the refrigerator — a showdown between the oranges and the junk food. Singing produce, dancing whole grains. I think I was a sentient Twinkie or something — one of the bad guys. We sang a song about fat and cholesterol to the tune of “˜The Lonely Goatherd’ from The Sound of Music. “˜Deep in the fridge were some evil Twinkies, la-hay-den with lo-hots of cholesterol!'” (p. 55)
Back when I was a deacon, I remember being cast as a member of the wimpy football team who uttered the line, “We don’t have a ghost of a chance” in one year’s road show. The rest of the drama, as I recall, centered around the competing interventions of two supernatural entities, “Ghost of a Chance” and “Spirit of Fair Play.” It was kind of fun (despite the grumbling aftewards by some of the adults about “that other ward” in the stake who always violated the guidelines but walked away with the awards).
Shortly after moving to my current ward some thirteen years ago. I was asked to be the adult leader (director? advisor? something like that) for that year’s road show. I had the distinct impression that the bishopric member was smirking as he extended the assignment — a more restrained reaction than that of at least one friend, who burst into loud peals of laughter. There’s some truth to the comment by one of Bell’s characters:
“I had to do a road show once. Longest three months of my life. They figure anyone who’s a little off the beaten path must be good at directing road shows. Anyone who is “˜artsy’ in any way must have some secret knowledge that allows them to whip up road shows out of thin air.” (pp. 54-55)
The experience turned out okay. In fact, I wound up enjoying it — and getting to know some of the youth in our ward, which was a good experience. I was particularly amazed at how some kids who acted shy and embarrassed during rehearsals turned into total hams during the performance.
Many of you reading this review doubtless have road show experiences of your own that you could recount. All too often, the production of an LDS road show becomes a drama in its own right, featuring elements of ambition, embarrassment, idiocy, stress — together (when it works right) with good humor, growth, and genuine bonding. My point here is that road shows are (a) distinctly Mormon, and (b) ripe for literary treatment in a Mormon setting.
Bell’s novel telegraphs its direction from its short prologue, where five LDS characters are briefly presented, each suffering from some form of spiritual malaise: the adult male pornography addict, the depressed young mother, the ambitious father and businessman who feels spiritually sterile despite his apparent success, the lonely old woman with fibromyalgia, the alienated quasi-hippy who doesn’t feel that he fits in at church. Each scene ends with the character’s internal plea for help from God. And then we see an email message from a stake activities chairman, talking about the year’s road shows. The expectation is clear: all five characters will see their lives change and their prayers answered through involvement with the road show project.
It’s a promising beginning: straightforward, engaging, and providing a clear signal both that the story will deal with some tough themes and that the answers will come through application of the gospel of Jesus Christ and opportunities for service in the kingdom. And by and large, that’s what the book delivers.
The characters’ dramatic situations are well thought out, marred by an occasional tendency toward heavy-handedness. For example, the despair of a young graduate student about to be expelled from his theater program (the pornography addict) is well drawn, but the LDS department chair’s comments about him seeming to have regressed in knowledge and skill during the past year read less like realistic character development and more like an intended scriptural illustration. While I agree with the principle that spiritual malaise leads to problems in other areas of life as well, usually the effects aren’t that simple and direct.
Similarly, the exhausted young mother is well-depicted overall, but a bit too cliched (in my view) when she starts thinking about the glamorous future stage career she gave up and the romance she never actually had with a young man from the BYU Young Ambassadors who has since gone on to perform on Broadway. She and her circumstances would be more interesting (and sympathetic) without the crossed signals about whether her basic problem is chemical and/or exhaustion-based depression or conflicted feelings about lost opportunities and priorities.
For the most part, the book follows through well on its initial promise. The resolutions are modest, believable, and appropriate to the situations of the individual characters. The exhausted young mother, for example, is rejuvenated by her participation in the road show — but also by going to the doctor and getting appropriate medication for post-partum depression, and also by realizing that she need to make an effort to reconnect to her husband and family. The pornography addict, as part of the most fully realized plot thread, both confesses to the bishop and exercises his will to resist temptation — and to avoid tempting situations before they begin. His success as director of the road show also plausibly (if somewhat predictably) paves the way for being given a second chance in his program. The lonely old woman experiences fellowship through her participation in the road show — and a physical healing on-stage in a scene I’m not quite sure works for me as a reader, though it’s as well done as it probably could have been given the premise. There’s no area where reader reactions tend to be more personal and individual than in response to literary/artistic depictions of spiritual manifestations and miracles. I give points to Bell for taking the risk.
I found the style clear, easy to read, and engaging. There’s a good sense of character voice. I also felt the author did a good job of communicating many concrete specifics of LDS life, though that’s a bit marred by the fact that each point-of-view character is shown at a point of quiet crisis. This focus means we aren’t directly shown what the gospel and Church involvement mean during regular times. That won’t be a limitation for the main intended audience, who as active members of the Church should be able to supply this for themselves; however, it makes the book less likely to satisfy non-LDS readers by providing a realistic and fully-sketched view of Mormon life. Interactions within the ward are nicely drawn, avoiding the kind of obsessively over-the-top, exaggerated behavior that some LDS writers rely on to add humor.
I very much disliked the book’s convention of using font style to differentiate between characters’ internal thoughts (regular italics), divine inspiration (italics in a more flowing script), and thoughts from Satan (darker italics in a kind of spiky font). For me, it was both distracting and intrusive. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, where we (like the character) had to tell the source by the content. The text was mostly clean from an editorial standpoint, although someone should have caught the incorrect use of tableaux for both singular and plural (singular is tableau). A quick glance at a dictionary would have fixed this.
In short, I found The Road Show enjoyable, well-written, and likely to appeal to many LDS readers. However, I can’t really say that it’s a groundbreaking, memorable, or powerfully affecting example of Mormon fiction.
Part of the reason lies in the clear didactic purpose of the novel and the way that the story was structured to deliver that message. There’s never really any doubt about where the story is going or what the message will be when it gets there. This predictability — reassuring and possibly even necessary for the mainstream Mormon market, given the tough topics the writer is dealing with — is a strike against the story from the standpoint of literature intended to help us see life and its experiences with new eyes, which is (I believe) one of the prime purposes of really good fiction. Yes, the gospel message remains the same yesterday, today, and forever, but there’s always room for new instantiations that make us think about and experience that message in ways we had not done before. The Road Show, while enjoyable and even satisfying in some ways, didn’t do that for me.
On a stylistic level, I feel that the book often relied on preexisting expectations of the audience to evoke desired reactions, rather than earn those reactions through carefully selected original words and images. Good and bad influences and effects were telegraphed not only by the typographic conventions mentioned above, but also by echoing well-known scriptures and relying on details with a well-established iconic value (such as a mother not liking it when her children sing). On a related note, we see little of the characters outside the particular aspect of their lives that relates to the storyline. In some ways, the book reminded me of the drama presented on stage in the book’s final chapter, in which the actors enact well-known paintings and music describing events from the life of Christ. It’s well-done but all pretty familiar — and two-dimensional.
Part of the problem is the shortness of the novel. In 120 pages of text, it’s simply impossible — in my view — to do justice to all the stories Bell is juggling. Instead, he gives us the literary equivalent of three snapshots for each character (though spread out over more than three scenes): initial situation, worsening problem, and change point. The complexity and complications of real life are largely missing. A complete treatment of the characters’ varied situations could easily have taken three times the space of Bell’s novel. But then, a novel three times the size of The Road Show probably wouldn’t attract as many readers.
All of which leaves me feeling somewhat conflicted about this novel. It’s easy to be confident in pointing out the flaws of poorly written fiction. It’s considerably harder to feel confident in pointing out ways that a well-written work falls short of what it could be, when I know that revising the story in the ways I’d like to see would probably reduce its appeal for its intended audience.
The simple fact is that a lengthier book with more character development, greater realism and detail in how its characters progress toward the resolutions of their problems, and more stylistic originality would probably not fare as well in the Mormon market. For that matter, I’m unsure whether the central story structure could have sustained a greater weight of text. And I’m quite sure Cedar Fort would have been less likely to publish it.
In sum, The Road Show won’t please those who look for innovation, original insights, or a high degree of gritty realism or literary polish in Mormon fiction. However, for readers who are open to a well-told, straightforward tale that delivers standard gospel answers while at the same time acknowledging real challenges that face modern members of the Church, there’s much here to like.