Reader Peter Yates-Hodshon was kind and thoughtful enough to pen this review of my book, which is available as a $1 download on Kindle
Although Phil Villarreal has not just penned the Great American Novel, Stormin’ Mormon, his debut, stands on its own as a must read. As film and video game reviewer for the Arizona Daily Star, Villarreal’s insightful, incisive, sometimes gritty critiques commenting upon our currently undulatingly “haunted” electronified culture give us pause; his analyses engage us, enrage us, entertain and entreat us. He is not solely a journalist; he is a keen observer (and commentator), not one to back down after stating his case.
The same can be said of Stormin’ Mormon…to an extent.
With some truly brilliant narratives (that are more the norm in his novel than the exception) and some downright authentic dialogue between his two protagonists, Villarreal paints a very graphic and – at times – comic portrait of our culture’s current incarnation. Through Villarreal’s storytelling, we confront our swirling reflections: we are inexorably chained to our battery-powered existence, umbilically hooked to the larger-than-life media leading us around by the hog ring of illusion, hopping from one bar or restaurant to another looking for “home.” We find ourselves vicariously “button-mashing through FIFA ’08 Soccer on the Xbox 360”; “[m]oving in with random karaoke guys”; ruminating about “Miami Vice,” Jim Rome, Maxim, The Rules of Attraction, 60 Minutes, Matrix, Cary Elwes, “World Series Thunderstix,” and Channel 13; and dining at “’Nico’s’…that makes the best steak, egg and cheese breakfast burrito mankind has ever known.”
Oh by the way, this all takes place right here in Tucson, Arizona…under the watchful eyes of Lute Olson and Wilbur the Wildcat.
Amiably and definitely without malevolence (because he might be describing the bulk of our shared consciousness), Villarreal depicts his two “heroes” as non-malicious, conniving near-losers standing at the brink of life. Saul Cruz, a not quite surly U of A graduate and wisecracking almost cowardly twenty-something Jim Rome wannabe, schleps as a sports shock jock for a local AM radio station. Jerusha Rockwell, the perfect counterpart to Saul, is a nearly 24-year-old, intelligent yet poorly motivated, foulmouthed undergraduate who lives by her wits, luck, looks, and financial dependence upon a clinging and demonized mother. Saul is a confused agnostic; Jerusha is a jack Mormon because “I, uh, have sex.” They almost seem like twins separated at birth.
Here’s the premise: Because his two protagonists, Saul and Jerusha, ravenously desire each other not so much because of an honest attraction but more because they have fallen out of love with their respective “soul mates,” they devise a ruse to chase away their lovers, to become devote Mormons. Comedically, this almost works as the vehicle for Villarreal’s two lusting heroes. The wind-up, the action which takes place before the ruse is put into effect, builds nicely; in fact, his portrayal of each character’s floundering relationship can be considered downright agonizing. This is a good thing: Not only do we strongly wish for Saul and Jerusha to make the carnal connection, we literally root for the ruse to work without a hitch (pun intended).
Ugly scenes of Jerusha and Jared (her current “bemused live-in boyfriend of three months”) locked in mortal combat instead of an embrace greet us at the outset. Similarly, we witness Saul bemoan the fact that spending time with his Baptist girlfriend Shannon has become a burdensome “requirement,” even though it was he who lamented her “dismissive initial response” to any type of cohabitation. The ugliness is excruciatingly palpable. All the characters, supporting and main, swear like sailors, eat like Huns, and have sex like pigeons. A reader’s head virtually swims in a more-than-graphic-Harold-Robbins tale of sexual-realm-of-the-senses angst.
Then the ruse.
Villarreal pulls this off neatly, but not so lightly. We do not find ourselves laughing so much as grimacing and shuddering. Was this not supposed to be a comedy? Is this actually becoming a tragedy…or a morality tale? And if this is a lesson, what are we to glean from Villarreal’s words? This is the drawback to his freshman outing: where is Villarreal’s voice?
As a polished cultural critic, Phil Villarreal guides us through the vagaries of our American miasma with aplomb. His work with the Star, more than bears this out: he tips us off to clunkers, brilliance, misses and hits. He nearly accomplishes the same with Stormin’ Mormon. Narratives that spring to life with little effort (the scene at McKale Center’s “press row,” a sordid and depressing depiction of a college bar, and radio station high jinx) provide Villarreal with amazingly astute vehicles for critique: we can sense a redundant, recurring cultural déjà vu. Have we progressed as a people? Comparably, he creates piercing encounters between characters that almost verge on the dialectic, especially when characters engage in heated arguments about mores and norms. Yes, the dialogue is that good, especially between Saul and Jerusha. The author speaks to us directly and without shame and demands that we listen carefully to what his characters posit. Here, within the meat of the book, deep into the narrative and neck high in dialogue do we find Villarreal’s strength as a writer: his realism is razor-sharp…and this is impressive for a first time author. We chafe and laugh and shudder simultaneously.
Yet, what is he telling us?
Reread Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Boyer’s Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker, and you get a sense of voice, of revelation…direct or nuanced. As readers, we do not have to guess that Jim is already a free man, that Holden senses that post-WWII America is already culturally bankrupt, and that David’s desire to drive a cab smacks back at a society demanding complacency of its members. Also, we know that each author, as social critic and keen cultural observer, demands our commitment as readers to read not just scrupulously but to accomplish something in our own lives, to adjust and readjust our zeitgeist in order to (maybe) just save our own hides and (maybe) a few hides of friends and foes.
Villarreal, however, as sharp an observer as he is, seems content only to grasp at a literary brass ring, offering religion as our salvation. While maintaining a spiritual life is a road to transcendence, most assuredly in many cases, the avenues taken by his characters seem less than intelligently taken, done more out of distress (and societal duress) than out of conscientious free will.
Herein lays the rub.
Does Villarreal give up at the end of this first attempt to make a satisfactory and pointed statement about our fragile and less than robust collective national spiritual inclination; or is he heartily and honestly recommending humdrum organized religion as our one and only hope for realigning our (through his eyes) squeamish, skewed civilization…in a way, disturbingly condemning women to lives of abject servility? Does he use the evolution of his characters, supporting and main, to ostracize us, condemn us for not easily accepting what is readily available in the way of suitable and customary religious pursuits? Or, and this may be the case, does Villarreal purposely use Stormin’ Mormon to describe our feverish grasping at two-dimensional spirituality as a panacea, in order to make plain our tendency towards intellectual incompetence, to make plain our desire for taking the easy way out? If we read and consider and contemplate the quotations (from Jane Austen to Tupac Shakur) introducing each paragraph, we find ourselves sweating out this conundrum. Also importantly, Saul’s ultimate though open-ended development as a character appreciatively marks the crux of this possibly unintentional dilemma in voice. We need to ask: What is Villarreal serving up with Stormin’ Mormon?
Because this novel causes intellectual stress, it is a must read. Because his narratives and dialogue are gifted, this novel requires a pair of keen eyes. Because Villarreal has so much more to offer, pour over this book. It is a peek at what is to come because in time Villarreal’s voice will ring more clearly; his talent strongly suggests this. We need to have patience; the payoff will be his next work.