Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Mark A. Taylor: Going Places You’re Not Wanted

I’m particularly interested in mysteries with no solution . . . .

I work for myself, picking subjects and topics that intrigue me—despite the stress and grinding economic hardship that sometimes go along with it. It’s one of those trade-offs writers and artists make with the hope it will work out.

If Mark Taylor understood one thing about himself, it was his need for independence. His work is marked by deep research and first-hand experience — he wouldn’t write something he wasn’t convinced was factual — yet he would never take the next step: never join, never become a member. If he belonged anywhere, it was on the road, exploring, encountering new people and finding new experiences, and as much as he loved his friends and the wife with whom he had too few years, his best companion was always himself.

There are a few good reasons you might not want to read The Capital of Paradise, the 2021 memoir by this novelist, poet, investigative journalist, editor, essayist, and lecturer, whose death on April 30 of this year brought a premature end to a remarkable career. For one reason, it recounts the story of a terminal illness — his own. Also, he didn’t much care for what is locally called “the dominant culture.” In spite of, or maybe because of, his preference for solitude, it bothered him that the society that formed him shows so little interest in what was happening beyond its boundaries, while being reflexively closed to outsiders. He, of course, was just the opposite: bored by the familiar while always eager to explore the unknown. There was also his youthful emergence, while a student at the U of U, as an activist and organizer in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Even in more Liberal parts of the country, opposing the war didn’t become acceptable, let alone popular, until its final years, and particularly so given the LDS church’s choice to support the national government while repudiating the various localities that had so egregiously persecuted its members.

Perhaps that history is part of the reason why Taylor so often went places where he was not only not welcome, but where his mere presence put his life in danger. Like a latter-day Woody Guthrie or Utah Phillips, he deliberately sought menial labor, while between jobs he took to the rails, learning to travel like a hobo while risking their jungles, or encampments, where sharing was the norm but violence was always a risk. The American Indian Movement was another of his passions, as he suspended himself between the leadership’s desire for the public influence he could bring and the angry young men who didn’t distinguish this white man from their sworn enemies. Taylor brings both the scenes and the characters he encountered in these and other pursuits vividly to life.

Proving he won’t be constrained, even by himself in what is advertised to be a memoir, Taylor only briefly recalls his most celebrated, successful investigation, in which he went undercover to reveal the fraudulent practices of televangelist Jimmy Swaggert. Instead, he begins The Capital of Paradise with a project then very much still in the works. It’s not immediately clear if his commitment to write a history of the Church of Scientology, which demonstrates some remarkable parallels to the church founded by Joseph Smith, rests on a sincere interest in an organization for which he expresses admiration, or a desire to ferret out some suspected truth about his subject, or a reporter’s instinct for a good lead, but on his first page he quotes his wife, in turn quoting him: “You said yourself ‘this project is bound to fail.’”

Both churches have in common that they were founded — or revealed as their charismatic prophets would no doubt prefer — recently enough for their origins to have been recorded not in fragmented bits of scripture, but rather in printed and archived, daily newspapers. Both rather quickly came into conflict with the religious and civic institutions they challenged, and consequently have early histories of conflict not unlike the early Christian stories of persecution by their Roman overlords — stories modern historians have done much to undermine. Taylor, meanwhile, risks undermining his own credibility early on by appearing to prefer the science fiction ethos of Scientology to the frontier character of Mormonism, seemingly without seeing the similarity between what he departs and what draws him forward.

A portion of this memoir details the attempted seduction of the author by the B-level hierarchy of Scientology, who want an independent journalist of his repute to write a history of their foundation, while he stubbornly refuses to sell out by retailing allegations and exaggerations that are not supported by the documents he is given. It’s a surprisingly captivating story, one that any number of contemporary periodicals might have published, complete with celebrities whose familiar names keep the public reading them. Like the better-known essays of Joan Didion, this approach generally produces episodic stories, and the books in which they are collected then make for desultory reading. Taylor’s efforts to unify his own discontinuous recollections, to make this a memoir and not a parcel of distinct essays, probably suffer from his having had to pull them together just as his body was failing him. Like all the arts, writing — a field which looks suspiciously not at all like work to those who haven’t tried it — is littered with unfinished final manuscripts. Mark Taylor did heroic work forging the scraps of a life’s adventures together into a bound set of pages worth turning.

Mark Taylor’s friends insist that “he knew every slot and canyon in the great southwest of Utah,” but hyperbole aside, his vivid recounting of the places he knew is matched by an endless wish to enter those he saw, but will never reach, there being simply too much of it. Here he is describing the last place that one of his obsessions, Everett Ruess, was seen alive before his still-baffling disappearance:

The view from the sheepherder’s camp is spectacular. To the west, less than half a mile away, the cliffs of Fifty Mile Ridge dominate the horizon and appear more like some exaggerated Hollywood backdrop than a world-class upthrust of Kayenta sandstone. To the north, east, and southeast, the land is an endless jumble of deep winding gorges and canyons that cut through a seventy-five-square-mile tract of broken rock and petrified sand dunes. To the south, twenty miles away, Navajo Mountain climbs nearly 10,000 feet and sets an anchor in the sky. The Navajo Gods live there.

The Capital of Paradise
Mark A. Taylor
Oxide Books
366 pp

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