Here’s the elevator pitch for Millstone City: “Two Mormon missionaries stumble into the City of God—-will they survive?”
And that’s a pretty good pitch, but it misrepresents the feel of the book. If you’ve seen City of God you know how terrible and sick its violence makes you feel:
The film offers little comfort to viewers uncomfortable with their own complicity in the on-screen violence, or those seeking a ‘ray of hope’ in the narrative. Meirelles introduces alternatives to violence, only to then dismiss or disempower those alternatives. City of God breaks with audience expectations by presenting no viable moral choice. The allegory of the chicken’s dilemma—“if you run away they get you and if you stay they get you too”—illustrates the film’s fatalism, a fatalism that is not only ascribed to Rocket, but impressed upon the viewer throughout the film. [source]
Millstone City is not a fatalistic novel. And so while I’m new to the John Le CarrÃ© game (I just read my first book), I think Bailey’s story of Brazilian gangsters has more in common with Le CarrÃ©’s Cold War spies than City of God or anything else I’ve read or seen recently.
The missionaries fill the roles of Le CarrÃ©’s British “heroes” while the gangsters are hyperviolent versions of the East Germans and Russians (while still retaining their humanity).
In The Spy Who Came Out from the Cold, old spy Alec Leamas agrees to throw his life away in order to be recruited by the East Germans as a double agent. The sense of hopeless oppression, of there being no way out from the masquerade he’s agreed to, of being nothing more than a pawn in someone else’s chess game, of having all “friends” complicit in the layers of lies—this confused uncertainty is a good estimate of what Elder Carson and Elder Nordgren are experiencing. With a significant difference: they did not choose to enter this game.
The action in this short and swift-moving novel begins with Elder Carson’s homesickness. He sneaks out of his apartment after midnight and calls his Utah girlfriend. At first, this made me assume he was a Horrible Rule Breaker etc etc, but the more we learn about Carson, the less we can judge this usually rule-abiding missionary over this infraction. If anyone has a right to feel homesick and a need to talk with his girl, it’s Elder Carson.
But whether his rule-breaking was righteous or not, he is still punished (?) when he witnesses a gang execution. From this one night away from his companion, he (or, rather, they) gets sucked into the world of cops and crime, a world where good guys and bad guys aren’t clearly delineated, a world where talking to the wrong person can get you killed.
But just as Millstone City is not as fatalistic as City of God, its main characters are not as divorced from knowing their role as Alec Leamas. Yes, our heroes have no idea how the underbelly functions; sure, they have no idea who should be feared and who should be trusted; but they do know in Whom they have trusted. And—in what might seem remarkable to anyone who’s never served a mission but will be obvious to those who have—even while their days are filled with threats from armed thugs and desperate attempts to skip town—they continue to perform the work to which they have been called—visiting, seeking, teaching, even sneaking in a lesson to an interrogating police officer:
“What don’t you get?” I say.
“Why would you come here in the first place?”
“We came to Brazil because we wanted to,” Nordgren says. “The church didn’t force us. We believe in what we do.” Nordgren gives me an unmistakable look. The look that means Let’s teach this guy a first discussion. We do. It is a good one except for the fact that we don’t have a copy of the Book of Mormon on us. We quote some passages to him from memory, and we promise to get him one later so that he can check it out.
In other words, after resolving my calling-home-at-midnight skepticism, Bailey is presenting me missionaries just as I know them. Young guys trying to do the right thing, and not knowing how to turn their missionary mojo off, no matter how wise turning if off might appear to the wisdom of men.
The elders go through moments when they liken themselves unto Alma and Abinidi and Mormon. Like those men (one unjustly imprisoned, one unjustly executed, one witness to the ultimate in destructive wickedness), these two young men—“children” they call themselves at one point—are thrust into a world alien to their intentions—but not their faith.
This contrast between their holy desires and the unholy world creates much of the story’s tension (besides offering up endless symbolic potential), but the reason you’ll want to read this book today is its nonstop acceleration, constant switchbacks, and overall edge-of-your-seatiness. It’s a thrilling read and nearly impossible to put down once you stop. And while I haven’t read some of the most heralded books in the missionary genre (Angel in the Danube, for instance), no question Bailey has caught the rhythms and mores of missionary life with exquisite accuracy.
In short, this book is great. If you liked his noir tale in Monsters & Mormons, pick this up today. (And if you like Millstone City, then pick up Monsters & Mormons.) If you like short thrillfests, try this on. If you like missionaries and/or traficantes, you should love this. It’s a great read on several levels.
Note: At this point in the review, I originally delved into parts of the book I thought were weaker, viz. the title and the ending. Even given these, I still heartily endorsed the book. Since that original review (written five months ago), those two issues have been rewritten. The new title I like much better. The new ending seems better, but without rereading the novel, it’s difficult for me to judge the aesthetic whole. (I’m thrown by a p-o-v change, but am not sure it was a mistake. Again: I would need to reread from page one.) In the end, both changes are positive and my endorsement is only strengthened.
[Note also that because this review was based on an electronic copy of the prepublication manuscript some changes exist between the version I read and that now available for purchase. In my update I’ve tried to compensate for these changes, but some inaccuracies may remain. Consult your copy.]