Book review: Saga of young, struggling Mormon continues in 'Of the World'

Max Zimmer's trilogy continues to immerse readers in Mormon America of the 1960s.
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Much of what happens in the second book of Max Zimmer's trilogy, If Where You're Going Isn't Home, might happen to any number of teenage boys in the 1960s: dating for the first time, street-fighting with punks from rival schools, playing in a band, building hot cars to drag the boulevard on weekend nights with their buddies and joining the Army Reserve to avoid the draft.

The difference is that this is Utah, world headquarters of the LDS Church, and Shake Tauffler, Zimmer's protagonist, has been groomed his whole life for something else: life as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that could, if he passes the ultimate test, culminate in his own godhood for everlasting life.

As Zimmer shows us so poignantly in Of the World, this is a heavy burden for a kid to bear. And Shake, whom we met in the first book, Journey, struggles and stumbles along the way. In fact, he is as conflicted as any character we might ever encounter. One day he is interviewing with his neighborhood bishop for his latest Individual Achievement Award, the next he is threatening to drive a tank through his parents' house. One day he is pledging chastity to his church leaders, the next he is exploring the intricacies of his girlfriend's body. And this is not just any body. Shake's relationship with this girl is, in the eyes of his church, an unholy alliance, one that Zimmer leaves for the third book to resolve.

His parents, Swiss immigrants doing their duty to God and their church, aggravate Shake's confusion by proudly proclaiming him their "first missionary" one day and implying he is inherently bad the next. "They don't know you like we do," his mother proclaims whenever someone says something nice to or about him. So it is no surprise that Shake relishes the Army, where rules are clear and he is just like everybody else. "At home you could follow every commandment they threw at you and still never feel like you'd done enough," he thinks. "Never feel finished. Never feel released. Here [in the Army] it happens every time you finish doing something. Done. Released at the end of every day. … Just you, from scratch, like every other guy."

The artistry of this novel goes beyond the story line to paint us a picture, sing us a song with words that skip, spin, jump and slide from scene to scene, luring us back to a place we almost remember. As Harper Lee did when she took us down South in To Kill a Mockingbird, as J.D. Salinger did when he put us into Holden Caulfield's head, Zimmer immerses us in Shake Tauffler's world, Mormon America in the 1960s. It's a time when teens would drag State Street weekend nights, pick fights with spoiled snobs from Olympus High School and give talks at church.

Zimmer's images sometimes are stark and dark. The young Mormon's guilt is embodied in a foul spectre of unforgiven sins, a faceless ghoul in a dress suit who stands in the shadows of the school gym where Shake plays his beloved trumpet; or sits in the passenger seat of a borrowed, hopped-up Ford as Shake, on the brink of a mission call, knowing the road of the life he built is ending, races across the desert to close it down his way.

One of the surprises of the novel for me, as one who grew up inside Utah but outside the LDS Church, is the bold description Zimmer gives to the temple rites that had been kept such a secret throughout my years as a Utahn. These "sacred" ceremonies are not so confidential now that almost anything can be found on the Internet, but their revelation still supposedly carries the penalty of death to believers and should fascinate outsiders. An aspect of the book that struck me as odd, though, are the questions non-Mormon acquaintances ask about Shake's mission — as if any Utahn would be unfamiliar with a mission's purpose and how it works.

Since beginning this emotional roller-coaster about young Shake Tauffler, I have struck up an online conversation with the open, warm and witty author, whose personal story resembles Shake's in an even more complex and interesting way. After growing up mostly in Bountiful, he did fulfill the expectations of his family and church by going on a mission and marrying in the LDS Temple. But his life took several sharp turns from there. He left the church, his marriage and then Utah in the 1970s. While teaching fiction-writing at the University of Utah, he accepted an invitation to Yaddo, the artists' retreat in upstate New York. He came under literary influences that strained his Utah family relationships and undermined his self-confidence, postponing his novels for decades. Such a shame, given his mastery of the written word and exceptional ability to reach his reader. Nonetheless, during those years, Zimmer taught writing at the State University of New York at Oswego and bar-tended in Manhattan. He now does a humor column for an automotive magazine as well as technical writing for the power industry with his wife, Toni.

I am captivated by what has transpired so far in Shake's life and eagerly await the third installment, Instrument of the Lord, expected next spring. It is then, I expect, that we will finally discover whether Shake's questions are ever fully answered; whether the church prevails or whether the young man takes another path.

Diane Cole, a former reporter and editorial writer for The Salt Lake Tribune, lives in Southern California.