Mormonism is a cultural field that is white, already to harvest by literary genius. But what we mostly see from observers and writers of the phenomenon of Mormonism in the current hour is chaff not grain, gossip not soul. So why do we witness so few skilled literary laborers in the Mormon fields, especially now in the Mormon Moment? Judaism has many such writers who can reveal with skill a soul of Judaism with elegance: Singer, Roth, Potok, and many more. In Closing Circles by R. B. Scott, we find the rare Mormon novel of such high caliber. It is a gem of a book, reminiscent of Philip Roth—witty, intelligent, culturally honest. Closing Circles lies at the center of elite Mormon novels as one of the great ones. It is one of the few places that makes the world and culture of Mormonism accessable to anyone. The book is universal, in the sense that it is accessible and revelatory to intelligent readers from any background. It is also universal by showing one way of being human—the Mormon path. That is no mean feat. No historian or anthropologist can get at the fascination of the Mormon soul quite so expertly and succinctly as R. B. Scott have done in this work. Let us look at some of its details.
Chances are ’cause I wear a silly grin
The moment you come into view,
Chances are you think that I’m in love with you.
Just because my composure sort of slips
The moment that your lips meet mine,
Chances are you think my heart’s your Valentine.
In the magic of moonlight,
When I sigh, “Hold me close, dear,”
Chances are you believe the stars
That fill the skies are in my eyes.
Guess you feel you’ll always be
The one and only one for me
And, if you think you could,
Well, chances are your chances are awfully good.
I like to think that the car radio is playing this contemporary (1959) witty and romantic song by Johnny Mathis when I read the love scene in the new Mormon novel Closing Circles: Trapped in the Everlasting Mormon Moment by R.B. Scott. Emmaline, the devout Mormon high school missionary, had brought the passionate and non-conformist friend, Jed, back into the Mormon fold. Now these two high school students were spending many hours in her father’s car in the mountain roads of Mount Olympus Cove in Salt Lake City, talking. She was surprised by Jed’s gentlemanly behavior, given his bad boy reputation. She wanted the righteous pleasures of saying “No, please no, not again.” (page 148) Impatient, she puts her arm around his neck and presses her open mouth against his closed one. Two hours later they resume their talking.
Emmaline suggest that they close the evening with a prayer to help them avoid temptation on this and future dates. She announces that on the next date it is Jed’s turn to pray. This replication of real life Mormonism of the period, which combines the mixture of intense pleasures of kissing and prayer, recalls what I personally witnessed at the University of Utah years ago. It lets me see this Mormon dating tradition with new eyes and insights into its character. This explores the Mormon mixture of hormones and Spirit in a way that I have never seen before. For Jed and Emmaline and others in this book, the circle has just begun its arc.
One of Jed’s open circles is started on his Mormon mission in New England. As he and his friend Greg prepare to go on missions, they notice that the fraternities on the University of Utah campus are filled with returned missionaries. The returned missionaries joined the fraternities to bring them status. They would not drink or smoke, but found nothing offensive in excluding Blacks, Native Americans and Jews from their fraternity.
In the 1960’s, I recall seeing wave after wave of missionaries leaving our ward after an official ward sacrament meeting known as a Farewell, before the church banned them in 1968. Fully 35 missionaries were serving at one time from my Valley View Second Ward, each Farewell with the glossy foldout containing a picture of the missionary with an outline of the program. It was like a pure white, spiritual baseball program. Scott describes the grand Mormon missionary Farewell as “equal parts mitzvah, wedding, and funeral.” And the protagonist, Jed, reveals something of his open and unorthodox charm in his benediction at the Farewell for his golfing friend, Greg:
“We’ve come to the close of this service honoring a young man who has elected to serve you on a mission. He isn’t here because he was coerced or bribed. Like many of us, even some who are already on missions or have served them and returned home, Greg isn’t probably even sure that You’re there. By accepting this call, he’s demonstrating his faith in You. He’s depending on you for an answer to his prayers. So please bless him with answers he seeks and the capacity to hear them and distinguish Your truths from man’s assumptions. And one last thing Lord, help Greg become a scratch golfer.”
The last comment seems to be intended as both a literal and metaphorical request.
The book actually starts and ends in our current time frame with Jed as an older writer in Connecticut. He is currently facing a shocking divorce that he does not want or understand. As he struggles to keep his emotional footing, his psychiatrist invites him to revisit his Mormon past and to close the circles of his life one by one. Scott strides confidently through fields of Mormon culture that without Scott’s revelations might easily be lost to us; he acts as a new witness of a culture Restoration in print, unclothed here for the first time in its fulness. But here it is, naked before us: blacks and the priesthood, the triteness of popular Mormon authors, the political swagger in the BYU administration, the outcastes of non-Mormons in Utah, priesthood interviews, polygamy, sexual temptation in all its delight and embarrassment, and grand spiritual debate. How did these details escape us for so long, and how did Scott help us see them with new eyes? For the first time that I can recall, this book tells me who I am and what it means to be a contemporary Mormon.
This book is more than nostalgia or a criticism of Jed’s weaknesses or of Mormon culture. It is simply trying to describe and understand why, and what is it to be Mormon in the past 50 years. Jed ‘s challenge through the book is to close his circles. This central metaphor in the book sees Mormonism from its circumference, and seeks to complete the unfinished business of its Mormon protagonist. Thus it invites us to do the same. Jed’s self-review is unflinching and at times raw and unglamorous. It is far too filled with sexual intrigue for my taste (but know that I am a prude who has difficulty wading through the darker portions of Canterbury Tales). Like a bonsai, Jed manifests his beauty in his lonely struggle to reach for the light with twisted limbs, and thereby manifests an elegance of repose in imbalance. But by the end of the book, through many bizarre twists, the novel leads us home with a warmer, wiser heart.
If you are a person looking for a compass on your breast with which to draw your circles, if you want to see the veil parted and revisit the Mormonism of the past 50 years for the first time, if you are one who wishes to discover a future Mormon synthesis that will fulfill its current struggle between thesis and antithesis—if you long for any of this, then by reading Closing Circles by R. B. Scott, chances are your chances are awfully good.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: R. B. Scott is an American jounalist, a fifth generation Mormon, a former LDS missionary, a writer at Time, and at Life, the independent biographer of Mitt Romney, and a native of Salt Lake City who has lived in New York and Boston all of his adult life. The Romney biography is entitled Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, published in October 2011 by Globe Pequot Press.