Title: The Scholar of Moab
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Torrey House Press
Genre: Magical Realism/Western Fiction
Price: $15.95 (Kindle, $9.99)
“I think this story is interesting cause my other friend
had strange things happen too. There are weird things in the world.
Strange even for a Scientist & Scholar like me.” —Hyrum Thanye (22)
Steven L. Peck’s new book The Scholar of Moab doesn’t read like your typical novel at all. The narrative is told by an unnamed chronicler, the “Redactor,” who brings strange tidings from an unlikely Cumorah. Buried deep within an “old curmudgeon’s trailer,” beneath a “mountain of filth and garbage” the Redactor discovers a collection of unusual documents carefully tucked inside a box labeled “Keep” (4). These documents include a journal by a dead fellow named Hyrum Thayne, a scientific article on “bumblebee faith,” a photograph of cowboy conjoined twins, letters and poetry by a nature lover named Dora Tanner, leftovers from a dismantled Webster’s dictionary, and other odds and ends. From this hodgepodge the Redactor pieces together clues about infidelity, theft, child abduction, religious fanaticism, and—somehow floating through it all—good intentions.
Hyrum’s typo-laden journal is the longest source document the Redactor uses to tell the tale. The journal beats with the heart of a scholar but thinks with the brain of a high school dropout. I love these juxtaposed similes:
Rick & I decided to take some fresh air. There was no moon & the cold December night was as black between the stars as a birds eye. The Milkyway looked clear & full & the stars as bright as the cars on the Salt Lake freeway from the 6th South overpass look (20).
So the journal reads like an odd mix of feigned Book-of-Mormon-speak (even beginning with a line about “goodly parents”) and misapplied Words of Power suggestions, a book which Hyrum uses to overcome his “inexactitudeness” (13). Throughout the journal Hyrum describes his yeoman’s work with the US geological survey where he encounters men of great learning. An insult from an arrogant coworker Hyrum calls “The Bob” inspires him to get smart. As Hyrum tells it:
All day long The Bob would do not a thing…he just would smoke his pipe & walk around in the Splendor of the La Sals. Except when he was tired of roaming around and thinking deep PHD thoughts then he would come over by where I was reading or resting & find fault with my life. He blasted Mormons. He cut down Indians…I didn’t much care about what he thought (24).
Hyrum didn’t care, except when Bob said Hyrum lived a “Dickensian life.” That comment (accusation? insult? compliment?) sets Hyrum on a quest to understand what on earth The Bob meant. In the days before Google that meant going to the public library. He’s on his way to becoming the Scholar of Moab. Hyrum’s nascent anti-intellectualism infuses his desire to become a real scholar.
Through the journal’s pedantic/simplistic prose it’s easy to detect Hyrum’s innocent sincerity. But the Redactor breaks up the journal by inserting other source documents. These show some of the ways that the journal simultaneously conceals and reveals. Hyrum has no qualms about letting the journal in on his exploits at the Moab public library, where he breaks in to steal a dictionary and winds up starting a fire and graffito-tagging the walls to cover his tracks, for instance. But the journal omits the little fact of Hyrum’s extra-marital affair with a woman whose baby goes missing. Meanwhile, Moab becomes astir with rumors that the library arson was executed by a gang of evil socialist communists possessed by the ghosts of Gadianton Robbers hiding high in the Moab hills. Rumors which Hyrum himself encourages.
Hyrum’s journal serves as the hub of the wheel to which the Redactor attaches the spokes which allow the story to turn. Among the strangest of these spokes are the writings of the Babcock brothers, conjoined twins who spent a short time working in the La Sals where they crossed paths with Hyrum. They eventually go on to an Ivy league education, one slowly slipping into mental illness and the other witnessing the descent. In one document the sane twin reflects on deep questions:
It may be that there will be no explanation for [my conjoined brother's] departure from the world of cause and effect. We stand in relationship closer than any human beings really ought to. I’ve been there for all his experiences. We started with the same phenotypical brain at birth, genetically identical heads, we’ve had identical experiences, identical nature and nurture, yet here we are—he gay, me straight; he religious, me an unbeliever; he mad, me clinging to rationality by a thread. Can the universe depend so thoroughly on who is on the right and who is on the left? Is it all chaos, and hung precariously on such tiny breaks in symmetry? (249).
Compare those reflections to Dora Tanner’s poetry notes which the Redactor also includes. (It’s difficult to believe the writings of these different characters actually come from Peck):
Lefthand. I am floating in a pool. Surrounded by stars exposed through a keyhole of sky left visible from between the small red rock canyon pool nestled between low cliffs. The waters cradle my naked buoyant body…There is sentience all around me. Presence. Being. Power. Will. A vitalism that enlivens the pool. I can feel the fish, the insects, the moss carpeting the rocks over which this cool water from ancient comets flows, I can feel tiny leeches clinging to their seta, they are living. Aware. Aware of me. Aware of me being aware of them…Floating I am not one thing. I am everything…I am not a separate thing and that realization heals, if only for a moment in this occasion of consciousness of being. And strangely in every vibration that marks the stuff of this place I sense. . . him (56).
The Scholar of Moab is the most engaging Mormon novel I’ve read since Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, though its approach is radically different. Peck convincingly merges the genres of magical realism and American West fiction by invoking the power of personal testimony—not his own, but those of his characters through their letters, journals, poetry, and interview transcripts. Using these disparate voices, Peck concocts a strange and tragicomic brew of naivety, philosophy, faith, discovery, and loss.
Steven L. Peck is an associate professor of biology at Brigham Young University. (See his faculty bio here, and his high scores on ratemyprofessors.com here. Evidently, no one has rated his “hotness.”) He is the current Science Editor for Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, and guest-edited the special environment-themed Summer 2011 issue. Speaking of Dialogue, you might check out his fascinating personal essay “My Madness,” his article on consciousness in LDS thought, or his piece on reconciling evolution with Mormonism. (Not to mention appearing in Newsweek, and prestigious journals like Biological Theory, Evolution and American Naturalist). He blogs here at BCC and at his personal blog, “The Mormon Organon.” He recently appeared on the Mormon FAIR-Cast (with me!) and Mormon Matters podcasts. His poetry has appeared in The Pedestal Magazine and in the new book Fire in the Pasture. A short story by Peck also appears in the new Monsters and Mormons collection. His self-published novella A Short Stay In Hell has been picked up by Strange Violins to be published in March 2012. And did I mention he has a young adult fiction coming out soon about warrior squirrels (no joke, from Cedar Press)? I could go on.