Earlier this week I gladly inherited a copy of The Best American Short Stories: 2008 from some some friends. As I scanned the table of contents, I noticed that Salman Rushdie, the year’s editor, had included a story called “Missionaries” by Bradford Tice. I wasn’t familiar with Tice, but the story sounded potentially Mormon, or at least religious, so I skipped ahead to investigate. Sure enough, the story was about two Mormon missionaries, Elder Case and Elder Joseph. Case and Joseph, by the way, are their first names. For some reason, they don’t use last names in this story.[1. But that’s a minor detail. Surely we can’t expect writers who are largely unfamiliar with Mormonism to catch a detail like that. Especially when they do us they favor of writing Mormon stories.]
The story is your average missionary story based on assumption and Wikipedia research. Case and Joseph are missionaries in Knoxville, and, as with so many missionary stories, one of them is disobedient (Case) while the other is not (Joseph). So, you can kind of guess where the story goes. They teach three people in the story–an old stoner (Claude), a senile black woman (Ida), and a young goth woman (Margo)–and during each visit Case uses his charm and salesmanship skill to rack up his baptism tally. Meanwhile, Joseph sits back and watches disapprovingly as Case smokes (first weed, then tobacco), lies, and has sex with the goth.
The story, in some ways, surprises. As one who knows missionary life fairly well, I found myself scoffing each time Tice seemed to make a mistake, like when Elder Case decides to go swimming and strips off his briefs. Didn’t Tice know that swimming was against mission rules? And didn’t he get the memo about garments? As a matter of fact: he did! Case is just a bad missionary. And Tice mostly gets his details right, even though he drops a few shibboleths, like the first name thing, which may or may not have been intentional. And even Case’s disobedience is not far-fetched. Most of us know stories of (or have experiences with) missionaries like Case, who rivals Flannery O’Connor’s aptly-named Manley Pointer in terms of religious shystery and sleaze, so we really can’t object to that aspect of the story except to say that it’s fairly rote and terribly predictable. But that’s a problem with all Mormon missionary fiction in general.
What bothers me by the story, apart from my frustration that better missionary stories[2. I’m thinking Paul Rawlins’ “The Garden,” Laura McCune-Poplin’s “Salvation,” or Walter Kirn’s “Whole Other Bodies.”] aren’t making it into The Best American Short Stories, is the character of Elder Joseph, who is supposed to be the missionary who represents true religious conviction. As Tice explains in his commentary on the story, which is included along with his bio at the end of the collection, he wrote “Missionaries” because he
want[ed] the fact that these two boys were Mormon to be secondary to what I saw as the real tension. One of the cheerless realities of organized religion, in my secular opinion, is that often its spokespersons, the advocates of faith, end up seeming like used-car salesmen, while the truly devout go voiceless. My assumption here may indeed be flawed, but I guess that’s where the characters of Case and Joseph came from. I wanted to see what would happen if two young men of faith, both given this monumental mission, set their sights on two very different goals. (339)
Elder Joseph, however, never really comes off as “truly devout”–even when he has a kind of religious awakening of sorts while he waits for his companion to finish up with the goth. Admittedly, that’s part of who Joseph is; he’s timid, a quiet follower, someone a Mormon might label “humble” for lack of a better word. Still, we get very little insight into Joseph’s testimony (as Mormons use the term) or his motivations as a missionary–even though the story is told from a third-person limited point-of-view that’s limited to Joseph. Instead, what we mostly get are Joseph’s (understandable) frustrations with his jackass companion–until the penultimate paragraph, when Joseph decides to lay the spiritual smack down on Case:
His back to the door, he decided then that he was going to be different. He was going to be what Case wanted–a force to be reckoned with. With his faith, he would be unstoppable, blessed, a god on this earth, and the world would bend to him. He would take all the Claudes and Idas and Margos and shelter them from lions. Cleanse them of their sins and fears. Then Case would have no choice but to recognize his greatness. (297)
This is Joseph’s great spiritual epiphany, the moment he decides to voice his “truly devout” devotion. Unfortunately, it falls flatly–at least to this Mormon reader–because of the way it reads “devotion” as messiah complex or deacons quorum president power-trip.[3. Translation: a twelve-year-old who wields ecclesiastical power like a Central American dictator.] For Mormon readers, endlessly schooled in the merits of selfless service and D&C 121, this story feels less about two missionaries with “very different goals” than two missionaries who are basically the two-sides of the same bad penny.
The epiphany only works, I guess, if you take it ironically.[4. Which maybe is an argument for why you should never read what an author says about his work.]
But “Missionaries” isn’t a great story, even if you take it ironically. Again, we can’t necessarily fault Tice for that. I imagine his experiences with Mormon missionaries has happened mostly at a distance–he says as much elsewhere in his explanation–and through a secular perspective, which likely doesn’t help much when you’re trying to make religious devotion work on a page. (Even Mormon writers struggle with this, yo.) So, perhaps the shibbolethic awkwardness of Joseph’s spiritual awakening is merely a result of Tice’s reaching beyond his comfort zone. Besides, actually talking to Mormons about their faith–even for research purposes–can be intimidating. Especially if those Mormons wear black plastic name tags.
Let’s give him some credit. Rushdie saw a need to applaud his effort. Shouldn’t we? I mean, the story’s not really about Mormons anyway. Nevermind the usual potshots about the priesthood ban and polygamy, which are apparently still upheld by “some Mormons” and the “really devout” (292, 294). Tice did the best he could, I’m sure. Think of what he had to work with.
FYI: Andrew Hall directed me to another review of the story on Zelophehad’s Daughters. It’s worth a look as well.