Monday, August 22, 2011

Faith-Based Satire: Steven Peck's "The Scholar of Moab"

I just read an advance copy of Steven Peck’s novel “The Scholar of Moab,” due out this October with Torrey House Press (

It’s satire of the best sort: biting what it loves, snuggling up to what it hates.

Reading about the man whose monument celebrates “Hyrum LeRoy Thayne, Scholar and Scientist, The Lord’s Chosen Servant and Defender of Moab, 1950-1977,” I thought a good title for a review might be “Faith-Based Satire.” Peck clearly loves the crazy Mormon Moabites he depicts, for he is one himself. He knows these characters – their beliefs and miscreant deeds and rural malapropisms – so well that they may well be mirrors of his own witty and drolly insecure self. (I know I found so many of my own propensities and perversions and prevarications in the persons and events that I suffered an intermittent blush as I read.)

Another title might be “Satire of the Faith-Based.” When Mormon and especially BYU scientists are urged by their leaders to do faith-based science, they run the risk of projects like Hyrum Thayne’s pseudo-scientific article on bumblebee faith published as a joke in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Neither Hyrum nor his fellow Moabites recognize that the article was published as humor, so the publication establishes him as the scholar of Moab.

What is there to say about a book that includes a mad poetess who claims aliens abducted her newly-born baby, a two-headed cowboy who ends up in art-saturated Vienna speculating about forms of consciousness, a dictionary thief whose diversionary tactics (spraypainting the library wall with Communist symbols and a possible reference to the Gadianton Robbers) infect the minds of his fellow Moabites with Pentecostal conspiratorial flames, a backslider whose worldview nonetheless is distinctly Mormon?

A couple of examples:

Hyrum begins his hand-written manuscript in typical fashion:
“How do I begin? How indeed. The rise from my beknighted state to one of mighty & true erudition will stand credibility on your hoary head. You will see me ascend from a miserly laborer with the USGS to a flagship Scholar invited to stroll among the high & mighty & publish landmark Science in the prestigious periodical the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Why did I underline that? Because titles are underlined in works of Scholarship. Verily, you will learn much more than this. Much more indeed. For I. Even I of my own Labors have engaged with the profoundest heights of Science & Literature. It is from the peaks of these high Heights that I first found entanglements both Wide & Deep.”

Perhaps the most comic character in all of Mormon fiction, Hyrum is a thinker, a cogitator as my father used to say, a philosopher who didn’t graduate from high school and thus has no basis other than his small-town experience and his unexamined Mormon theology against which to judge the new and confusing things that come his way as he molds himself into a scholar with the help of books from the Moab Public Library. Confronted with a problem, he figures it out on his own terms, as in this paragraph:

“So I sat there in the dark on the stage in the cultural hall feeling plenty sorry for myself. Such was the cost of being erudite & Scholarly I figure. Did Leonardo Di Vinci have these kinds of problems? One book at the library says he was a homo. I do'nt believe it. I suppose they think that because he liked to draw naked men standing in circles with arms stretched out. But I think that he drew naked men because he was too embarrassed to draw naked women. Like I would feel mighty strange drawing a naked lady but I never had a moment of trouble standing around in the locker room in high school with a bunch of naked guys. So I figure people that say he was a homo just do'nt know what its like to be a guy playing sports. But all the same he had trouble. He had to dig up bodies so he could peer inside their skins to get the muscles right in his drawings. And so he snuck around at night with his shovel over his shoulder no doubt causing the neighbor ladies of his times Child Protection Society or whatever they called it then to wag their tongues in undulations of cacophony.”

Peck’s novel is rich with dangling placentas and mechanical pencils and Cleon Skousen books and bolo ties worn with platform shoes and contrasting stories from the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News and best of all, language, lots of earnest, rurally fractured Mormon language.


Mark Bailey, Publisher said...

Thanks for this post Scott. It's going to be fun to see this how this book is perceived by different perspectives.

BHodges said...

Great review of a great book, Scott.

Scott Abbott said...

Thanks. It's easy to review a book as rich as Steve's.