Jack Harrell’s novel Vernal Promises is one of the best works of Mormon fiction to appear so far. It’s about Jacob and Pam Dennison — a young couple with Mormonism in their past who find that turning away from their wild life and joining (or re-joining) the fold isn’t easy.
I haven’t felt inclined to write a full review of it — something with smooth transitions, a plot summary (click on the link above for a brief summary), and a clever beginning and ending, so instead, here are a few points about the novel:
1. Vernal Promises fall into the category that has produced the strongest literary works to appear in the LDS market: faithful realism, written in spare (i.e. un-baroque) prose with just a touch of the melodramatic — Angel oof the Danube, Benediction, Falling Toward Heaven, Salvador and many short stories fit into this category. In these works, the LDS Church is true, but the characters are flawed beings who sometimes have difficult believing, living the gospel and/or dealing with fellow Saints.
2. The content of the novel is quite tame by modern literary standards. There is very little swearing. There is some sex and violence, but it is not described in detail. However, I imagine that some Mormons would object to the frank depiction of drug use that occurs in the novel. Jacob Dennison — the protaganist — is an addict. He drinks, smokes marijuana and even experiments with acid and methamphetamines. His highs are described as highs — as pleasurable even (in the sense that altered states can be ‘pleasurable’). HOWEVER, Harrel doesn’t glorify drug use at all. Indeed, as Jacob gets pulled deeper into his addictions, the consequences — physical, emotional, spiritual — are dealt with graphically.
3. The most brilliant aspect to the novel is that it doesn’t simply contrast living the gospel with not living the gospel. At a couple of points in the narrative, Jacob tries to give up his sinful ways and zealously applies himself to staying clean and working hard. But it soon becomes clear that this is not a permanent solution. The stasis he creates for himself can’t hold. He eschews sin, but also refuses to fully accept Christ’s grace and the healing power of the atonement. In fact, this is one of the most powerful explorations of the atonement to appear in Morman art.
Here’s an example from early in the novel:
“He’d put five months of hard work into his religion … He knew the church was right, but that wasn’t enough to change him. Everything that felt natural and good and normal also felt wrong. The problem was, he didn’t want them to be wrong” (22).
4. Flannery O’Connor is mentioned in one of the blurbs on the back of the book. The comparison fits — indeed there is a scene in the novel that is quite O’Connor-esque. But it also shows that LDS novelists still need to find their uniquely Mormon solutions and moments. The scene in Vernal Promises almost doesn’t work. It maintains the shock value and heavy symbolism that’s a signature of O’Connor’s climactic scenes. It rises to the grotesque and in doing so illuminates. However, it is still a little too Catholic in tone and form (it even involves iconography), and because it is located in Mormonism, the presence of grace [which is what O’Connor was always looking for — and often succeeded in finding] isn’t as strong as I would like — a weakness of our theology [not in terms of actual doctrine — but in terms of literary representation. Obviously, I understand with, agree with and find comfort in the LDS view of grace], but also an acknowledgement that our authors are still coming to grips with a language that suits the beliefs, doctrines and history of Mormonism.
5. The portrayal of Jacob’s bishop is fantastic — one of the best parts of the novel. Bishop Gallagher is pragmatic and spiritual. He is a no-nonsense manager, but he also shows great compassion. And he extends himself to help Jacob and his wife, Pam, even though he doesn’t quite understand them.
6. Although the narrtive focuses more on Jacob, Pam is a major presence in the novel. She is kind and good and very real. And she displays something that seems to me is a common trait among many Mormon women converts — the desire to live the Gospel and become part of the body of Saints is bound up with the desire to also improve her and her family’s social stability and status. How this impacts her and her husband is an important part of the story [and the answer is — both negatively and positively].
7. One more thing to like is that the chapter titles have a Mormon or Christian resonance — “unstable as water,” “all we like sheep,” “a perpetual covenant.”
8. Read Vernal Promises.
NOTE: Jack Harrell teaches English and creative writing at BYU Idaho. Vernal Promises received the 2000 Marilyn M. Brown Award for Fiction from the Association for Mormon Letters. The award is given every two years to an outstanding unpublished novel that focuses on Mormon characters and themes.