Back in our graduate student days at BYU, Meredith and I lived in a deligthful quad made of cinderblock buildings that faced onto a central playground. It was heaven for our young children who could be out our door and onto the slide or merry-go-round in seconds.
It was also heavenly for us because we were able to associate with other LDS grad students who were trying to balance the demands of graduate school with the demands of raising a family.
Jonathon and Wendy Penny lived kitty-corner from us and we spent a lot of time socializing as couples and having a good time. In fact, Jon and Wendy were over at our apartment on New Year's Eve when we heard a gurgling sound and dirty, mucky water exploded out of our garbage disposal and flooded all over the floor.
At any rate, Jon was working on his Master's in English, and I always loved being around him. He combined an irreverent sense of humor with a deep and honest devotion to the gospel that was irresistable. He was also and (presumably still is) brilliant. Jon became a treasured friend and a sort of spiritual brother.
After we both graduated and left BYU, Jon earned his PhD from the University of Ottawa in Twentieth Century British Literature and became Dr. Jonathon Penny. He has taught at BYU, UVU, U Ottawa, and U Lethbridge, and currently teaches at United Arab Emirates University, where he cleans up after the department, runs a campus-wide debate society, and works on his tan. You can find more about Jon by checking out his blog here.
On principal, Jon never reads Mormon literature. However, he agreed to read my novel. Our agreement was that if he hated it, he would just not say anything. So, I was deeply honored and, to be honest, giddily excited, when he read it and sent the following very perceptive review.
Thanks, Jon. For helping us clean up the kitchen, for the long soul-feeding conversations on the playground, and for the thoughtful review.
"Braden Bell’s The Road Show is the story of an aggregate of broken souls in a ward on the frontiers of the American church. Some struggle with sin and self-loathing, some with depression and despair, others with the loneliness of isolation. These damaged souls are brought into relief against the waves and eddies of a community that doesn’t see them, and which they do not see. They are brought together, a motley bunch, in an earnest and innovative road show production, and enact their own redemption in a spiritual outpouring that changes them and the people around them. The uniqueness of the novel is its conceit that theatre—and by extension the arts—are effective spaces for revelation, worship, and the work of ministry. It is, in short, a story of congregation at its best—of the healing and help that we experience when we learn to see each other, and thus ourselves, through God’s eyes.
Its weaknesses are few and forgivable. It is an LDS novel, and is thus somewhat predictable in its narrative arc. It must be comic, in the Greek sense: we expect that things will turn out, and they do. But the denouement is open-ended, fragile, movingly steeped in a sobbing, miraculous energy that we know pours, ebbs, trickles, and pours again in turns. It is an LDS novel, and while the characters are differentiated in voice, the language, even the language of sin and doubt, is clean-cut, confined to a Sunday School vocabulary, safe for consumption. In a less authentic effort, this would feel evasive or weak, but Bell, a bishop as well as an actor, director, and teacher of theatre with a PhD from NYU, deliberately refuses to sully the narrative with the mere trappings or symptoms of darkness. The darkness he explores is that of the soul in pain and despair, clinging to the remnants of faith and hope, and finding them strengthened in prayer and community. It is a darkness diffused by light and joy.
The author is stage-savvy, and it shows. This is a Spartan novel, light on details, but each scene is easily seen in the mind’s eye, close up, drawn in on the faces and the turmoils of the characters.
And the novel is moving—funny, honest, clearsighted, hopeful—but mostly moving, written about keening hearts with a bishop’s keen sympathy and an artist’s keen eye. The show itself is startling for its artistry, and the novel, with a few exceptional passages that overreach, is written for the visual imagination, Spartan, focused, untroubled by the garrulous style of most freshman authors. The story isn’t over-populated: the ward and stake are implicit, a kind of organic milieu of personalities we sense and recognize through throwaway observations: types familiar and fond. Minor characters are given space as more than foils: they actuate much of the progress the principals make, and they also show us how both damage and restoration ripple out—that selves, families, and communities alike suffer, and alike need healing.
A cynical reader will find that healing a little too pat, a little contrived. I would have hoped that, even though Bell allows for the fragility of the spirit, he might have left one or two wounded souls wandering in the dark. This, too, is a forgivable problem, and perhaps an inevitable one: such compressions of action, such intensities of movement are staples of storytelling, and it is always easier to write about pain and darkness than it is to write convincingly about healing and light. The redemption we seek can feel a little fantastic at times, the light wan and diffuse—but this is because we are accustomed to telestial shadows. The cycles of sin and depression, the keening, can be tiresome, but that, too, is naturalistic: these are old crises we’re encountering at high tide: the rolling is metronomic, familiar, and normal. That the monotony of what keeps us from God’s love can be broken is precisely the point. When God breaks through, our clarity of vision feels dreamy, surreal. But it is the realest thing there is. And it is precisely the joy of redemption that preoccupies Bell and his readers in the end: yes, that joy may be fragile, perhaps fleeting, but it is also momentous, awesome, and total as long as it lasts. And it promises to come again."
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