When ordering a whole grouping of Zarahemla Books’ titles last Christmas, Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven was at the top of my list. Having won both the Association for M0rmon Letters Award for best novel AND the Whitney Awards’ prize for best novel proved that it had won universal praise from across the whole spectrum of Mormon writers and readers. And every review I had read of the novel had pretty lofty praise for it. So I went in with the bar set high regarding my expectations. Coke Newell cleared that bar, and then some.
For those who are unaware, the autobiographical novel by LDS journalist and writer Coke Newell tells the story of “Kit” West (a Rocky Mountain loving name, if I ever heard one), who is a Zen believing, semi-hippie, pot smoking, vegetarian, guitar playing, hitch hiking, Colorado mountain man… who also happens to give up his life and lifestyle to follow Jesus and join the Mormon Church. Kit, from the get go, had me invested in him. His narrative voice was engaging, his heart sincere, his principles rooted, his spirituality sublime, and his flaws beautifully human. His instinctual attraction to nature made me think of those rare moments in my life when I have been able to escape my predominantly suburban existence, and find myself in the wilderness, with millions more stars above me than I was used to and the wind swaying the mountain aspen peacefully. His inner romantic for the love of his life Annie was something that completely mirrored my own amorous strivings when I was younger. And his deep spirituality, even before his introduction to the Church, sealed my affection for this marvelous character. He was a spiritual seeker, he was a lover, he was a poet. My kind of guy.
I started straight into the novel and was cruising through it pretty quickly, sincerely hooked into the storyline and its characters. Kit’s mountain adventures and philosophical outlook drew me, his distaste for hypocrisy made me admire him, and his all too human errors and their aftermath made me cast a sad glance back at my own life. But then I hit the snag… the novel went from conversion story to missionary story.
Now, the LDS faith has a strong tradition for its missionary narratives. It’s a powerful sub-genre within Mormon Letters, Theatre, and Cinema in its own right. But I was burned out on them. After a couple of chapters, I almost quit the novel altogether… I got a satisfying fulfilled storyline with Kit’s conversion to the Church, so I was almost ready to call it good and spare myself yet another missionary story. After a while Mormon proselyting stories all start to blend in together. However, several months later, the book still cried out to me, singing to me from my book shelf.
I ignored it for a while, thinking I would get back to the book, after I caught up on other reading and labored at the monoliths of real life. Still, in the back of my head Annie and Kit’s love story remained unresolved, and I really did want to see where Kit ended up after his call to Colombia. So finally I relented, knowing that I wanted to write this review and give the well written book a shout out, as well as really wanting to legitimately finish the well crafted piece of art.
To my pleasure, the missionary section of the book was intense, sincerely spiritual, and gratifying. It did suffer from some of the pitfalls I knew would come with that sub-genre… constantly shifting missionary companions and investigators made it hard for me to keep track of the quickly-on-quickly-off supporting characters, and a lot of focus was given to missionary culture, which took time away from the real relationship building that hooks me into a story. But the spine of the novel was still strong, as the Latin American background proved to be a wonderful canvas to paint on, and Kit’s spiritual journey remained the center of the novel. Not to mention the relationship between Annie and Kit (long distance as it was at this point), which I found sweet and quietly engaging. It even made me remember fondly my own mission experiences, as that aspect of the story really went past the cliches and went into the specifics of Newell’s own individual experiences in a foreign country. It also made me very grateful that I served in a more developed country like Australia, where I didn’t have to deal with tape worms and murdering drug smugglers.
There were a lot of stand out moments in the book which I am reluctant to share here, as I want readers to discover the trail of gold nuggets that lead the reader throughout the story. But what I can say is that the writing is clear, evocative, and poetic. I have to confess, I have never read any Jack Kerouac, which the style of the novel pays homage to, but the novel piqued my curiosity enough to want to look him up. Even though the supporting characters were on too briefly to really establish a relationship with, the central core of Kit and Annie were more than enough to keep me emotionally invested. And the spirituality which infuses the book, bolstered by all its earthy realism, is what makes the journey On the Road to Heaven truly worth it. Even amidst the Milky Way’s worth of lights in a Rocky Mountain sky, this beautiful novel is a bright star.