A Worthwhile and Long-Awaited Story: The Agitated Heart, by Scott Bronson

Title: The Agitated Heart
Author: Scott Bronson
Publisher: ArcPoint Media, Orem, UT
Genre: Novella
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 201 (but only about 40,000 words)
ISBN13: 978-0-9743155-1-5
Price: $12.99 from Amazon.com
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford. (Electronic review copy received from the publisher.)

This is a story that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read. Fifteen years at least, since I first started hearing about it under its original title “The Whipping Boy.” It’s good, people told me. The best unpublished story in Mormon literature. It’s a mystery why no publisher has ever picked it up.

Thanks to Scott Parkin’s ArcPoint Media and to Scott Bronson’s own persistence, that long wait is now over. And I have to say: the story pretty much lives up to its hype — with some quibbles that I’ll get to later.

(And now I have to stop and say that there will indeed be spoilers. Because I can’t possibly review this story the way I want to do without referencing the ending. Not that the ending is a particular surprise; it’s foreshadowed for essentially the entire story, and if hearing about the ending puts you off, you probably aren’t someone who should read this book. Just saying.)

*****

First, the basics:

This is a book about a modern suburban Mormon family of four: the father, Marcus, a counselor who works with family issues (ironically so, in light of some of the other elements of the story); wife Susan, who I believe is a housewife at the time of the story; daughter Kari, soon to turn eight and doubtful about being baptized (though she hasn’t told anyone); and son Christopher, eleven, who is being bullied at school.

And that’s it. That’s most of the plot conflict, right there: ordinary people leading ordinary lives, a marriage with its tensions, children with their doubts and playground struggles. Four individuals, each with his or her own internal conflicts and doubts, each of which we are shown in turn through scenes in alternating points of view. Here’s something I wrote partway through the book about the characters in this story and my reaction to them:

The pain of recognizing ourselves as we wish we weren’t: mortal, fallible, petty, often selfish, sometimes mean, but wishing — sometimes achingly so — that we were better than we are. Biting our lips (and sometimes failing to do so) on the criticisms of ourselves that we are sure others are voicing themselves, and the criticisms of others that while possibly truthful in some narrow sense are also both hurtful and unfair. And the way that sometimes the words we do speak cause hurt that we cannot anticipate and often may not even know.

We don’t like that we as parents sometimes resent our children. We don’t like that we want them to like us, and that we compete with each other for their affection. We don’t like that our parents are human, and want things from us that we can’t give. In general, we don’t like that we resent the impositions that we place on each other. We don’t like that we enjoy our superiority to other people, and we don’t like how inferior to them we know ourselves to be, deep inside ourselves.

Susan has sexual problems that cause her to draw away from Marcus. Marcus struggles with his sense of inferiority/superiority to Susan. Kari is pretty sure she’s not a very good person. Christopher…

Christopher, I think, resents his parents for the situations they put him in. But as the tale progresses, and Christopher comes closer to his own crisis (I originally wrote “apotheosis,” but that isn’t exactly fair), his sacrifice starts to become larger than he is. Perhaps inevitably so, for a story that is clearly intended as (among other things) an allegory of the Atonement.

It’s not a weakness of the story, precisely. I like Christopher, and find him mostly realistic: more than most characters in fiction, to be honest. (Characters in even very good fiction are often memorable without actually being realistic; just take a look at Shakespeare’s villains…) But in the end, there’s a bit of the glow of the sanctified about Christopher, and I’m not sure it was meant to be that way.

*****

Characterization is the great strength of this story. The characters are real, and Mormon, and fallible, and contemporary: not pioneers crossing the plains, not Utah farm boys, not missionaries in the field or their converts. They are intensively Mormon, and the story is Mormon because they are, and because it plays such a central role in their lives. But the substance of their lives, the conflicts they experience, the challenges they confront, is not terribly Mormon: only in their religiously inspired belief that they ought to be better than they are, in their willingness to try to live better than they might otherwise.

In all these ways, this story reminds me very much of Orson Scott Card’s Lost Boys, another story of suburban Mormonism featuring a sacrificial child (as so much of Card’s work does) — but presented in a more stripped-down and simple narrative, without the ghost-story elements and myriad other complications of Card’s novel.

The particulars of the characters’ situations and challenges are specific to themselves. Some of them seem silly to us, and probably to them as well. At the same time, reading this story, it is impossible not to be reminded of how ridiculous our own particulars would be to someone else. We are all fallen, which — among other things — means that our fears, our insecurities, are often irrational, and could be stepped beyond fairly easily if we could just figure out how.

Which, I guess, is where the Atonement comes in. We are all broken, and even when we can see the ways this is true — for ourselves and each other — we cannot get past it on our own. We hurt each other and are unable to heal the wounds we have dealt, both knowingly and unknowingly. We try to be good but do not know how.

*****

This was a hard book to read, even enjoying it as I did, even knowing what was coming. For some readers — like my sister who has issues with Orson Scott Card’s writing because of what he puts children through — I can imagine it would be well-nigh unbearable. All the more so, given that at the end of the story, I am left unsure whether Christopher ultimately lives or dies. (I think I’m meant to be unsure about Christopher’s ultimate fate; if not, chock it up to my lack of discernment as a reader.)

Which brings me to my quibbles, most of which have to do with several minor ways that I think probability and focus are cheated at the end of the story in the interests of presenting a more dramatic and thematically perfect denouement.

First, a simple plot point: Why didn’t Greg (the neighbor whose son, finally turning against the brutal bullying, fetches him to stop Christopher’s literal stoning) call 911? I can see the plot and thematic reasons why it happened that way, but as I read the account of Susan rushing to get Kari ready to go with them to the hospital, I couldn’t help but think: he’d already be there if they’d called an ambulance. Not to mention all those first aid manuals where it talks about not moving injured people if you can avoid it before qualified help arrived. A small thing, but it bothered me.

And then there’s the part about the boys who did this, and whether or not charges will be placed against them. I’m no legal expert, but I strongly suspect that if a kid winds up at the hospital with life-threatening injuries, and they have witnesses who know who did it, the kids’ parents don’t get to decide whether or not the offenders are charged. I get why it’s written that way, and honestly I like Marcus admitting that he’d love to rend them limb from limb but doesn’t want to be that kind of person — but I think it would be more realistic if, after he gave that little speech, the policeman looked at him and said, “That’s not your decision to make” and then walked away.

Which brings me to the boys themselves. I’d be the last person to deny that kids in middle-class neighborhoods can be horrible to each other. What bothers me is that there seems to be no recognition that for them as well, this is (or will be) a life-changing event — possibly more so than for Christopher, assuming he recovers. Some of them will regret it, and will have to live with the awareness that they actually did something that awful. Some of them won’t, and will grow up to become sociopaths. All of them will have to deal with criminal charges, horrified parents, plummeting social status (because even if kids in American suburbs do that kind of thing, other kids won’t find it cool that they almost killed another kid), possible issues with social services… the list goes on.

Obviously, all that can’t be fit into this story, nor should it be. This is the story of Christopher and his family, not Sandy and Vernon and Gary and the two unnamed junior high kids, or even (mostly) Clarence (the boy who finally went and got his dad). But in a book that has been so much about individuals as mixtures of good and evil, and about the consequences of actions (intended or not), it seems odd that there’s no tipping of the hat at least to the fact that these boys’ stories have now become much more complicated as well. Maybe that’s part of what bothers me about the dropping-charges thing: for me as a reader, it suggests that what happens to the boys after the story is over isn’t important enough to share narrative space. I’m sure that’s not how it was intended (and maybe no one else read it that way), but that was my reaction.

All of which doubtless sounds like this bothers me much more than it does. So let me reaffirm: this is a superb story, something I feel no qualms putting out as an example of why Mormon literature is worth reading and writing. For anyone who can stand the genuinely hard things that this story deals with — not just the fate of Christopher, but the unflinching look at all of the main characters and their foibles — this is a story I highly recommend.

2 thoughts on “A Worthwhile and Long-Awaited Story: The Agitated Heart, by Scott Bronson”

  1. I appreciate this thoughtful review, Jonathan. I actually finished this book last week, but I’ve put off writing a review of it since I didn’t like it very much–for similar quibbles as those you list above, which bother me more than they seem to bother you.

    SPOILERS…

    I personally thought the ending was a little over-the-top, and I think your critique of the ending helps me see why I had that reaction. I agree with the improbabilities you list, and add the intense brutality of it all to my distaste for it. I know, of course, that the blood is meant to be symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice and atonement–but it seemed needlessly excessive. I was also not convinced by the marauding pack of elementary school-aged thugs. Sure, they were led by an eighth-grade sociopath…but the beating was so extreme that it felt contrived.

    I also felt that too much blame for the family’s dysfunction was placed on Susan. Only her backstory gets more or less fully developed, so it’s her issues that become the most prominent. Since we don’t know much about the backstory of Marcus–or even the kids–we are left to conclude that their problems are a direct consequences of Susan’s issues. That hardly seems fair to her.

    I think the story needed another hundred pages to flesh things out.

  2. Hi Scott,

    Good point about Susan’s backstory, although for me that helped me sympathize with her more. I think I found myself blaming Marcus at least as much as her, even if she seemed more “broken.”

    It’s hard to imagine how another 100 pages could have been added to the story without breaking the surface tension. But I agree that there are points where the story the author wants to tell seems to get in the way of the story I think is actually (at least potentially) there.

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