There are few exits off I-15 into Springville: one leads you directly into “Art City,” where a stellar Spanish Colonial Revival-style museum houses thousands of treasures by Utah, American, and Russian creators; another, author Michael William Palmer’s exit, features numerous dead-end jobs and an assortment of dead people.
Either exit is worth taking if you’re up for spending an enriching afternoon. This time out, I opted for wordsmithing over brushstrokes and bronze. Utah County is a place where I’ve always felt a stranger in a strange land; Palmer doesn’t do much to alleviate this sensation, but goes quite a way toward explaining it – making that paranoia of feeling the perpetual outsider seem justified.
It’s a shame to reveal the title of Palmer’s challenging yet quietly enjoyable collection of alluringly written essays with words and themes that hit you right in the solar plexus; it sets the book up to be something it is not — Baptizing the Dead and Other Jobs is not about Mormonism, though it explains some of the elements. It is, rather, 175 pages of reflections: on having a sense of place and abandoning it; having faith and losing it; having close ties to friends who leave abruptly. And then on leaving. Period.
The author opens his chapter, “7-Eleven Clerk” — and his book — with:
“For the first week and a half after Blake, Jen, Ariel, and Scott drowned in a dark cave on Y mountain [this event actually occurred in August 2005], I spent most of my time staggering around my apartment like a wounded criminal, lying down in the dry bathtub, and going outside only to visit the sealed-over cave or to attend a funeral. I hadn’t gone to work once, nor given an explanation for my absence beyond ‘personal reasons,’ so I was surprised when I went back for my paycheck to find out I still had a job if I wanted it.
I was working the graveyard shift at a low-activity 7-Eleven not far from Utah Lake, and that was where I had been the night Blake died. Because of that, plus the actual shudder I felt in my spine at the thought of refilling the nacho dispenser or pretending to clean the grill, I did not want to go back there. But I had rent to pay and was out of gin and groceries, so I re-took the job.”
This book is, primarily, a coming of age tale told through a series of job descriptions ranging from the late-night “7-Eleven Clerk” refusing demands to sell post-1 a.m. beer; to lawn mower to call-center “dialer” to knife salesman to vacuum “specialist” cleaning public spaces at Utah Valley State College to (cleverly yet sadly) “7-Eleven Clerk, Again.” In between these gigs – and in bright new chapters — Palmer is a fumbling boyfriend, cockfighting birdwatcher, eviction processor, and Utah Jazz fan who has taken renowned point guard John Stockton as a childhood idol and tells us why in perhaps too much biographical and game rehashing detail. (The only weak section of the book even to this Jazz aficionado and still I devoured it.)
What works structurally and is oddly enthralling is Palmer’s use of an encyclopedic device to make many of his points (also to introduce his gentle Gentile readers to things that otherwise could go right over their heads). Entries such as:
600 Feet into Granite Mountain, A Vault
The mountain is called granite but the rock is technically quartz monzonite. It looks like granite, though – gray and strong and eternal. The same rock was used to construct the Salt Lake Temple, the spiky, rain-colored building in downtown Salt Lake. Inside the mountain vault is a collection of dates, artifacts, histories, maps, possible converts, never-got-a-chances. The vault is said to hold the largest collection of genealogical records in the world. Millions of rolls of microfilm, digital media, diaries, maps. Records of all the living and the dead and where they came from. All the names and stories, sealed in rock where they can’t be lost.
1820, Spring of
According to the official version, this is the origin story: A fourteen-year-old boy, struggling to know which religion was true, walked into a grove of trees near his home and prayed about it. At first he was wrapped in unnatural daytime darkness – but a light shone down and two visages appeared. In the cartoon rendition I watched as a kid, young Joseph Smith had to lift his arm to shield his eyes from the light while he listened to the voice of God. See also Vision, First.
This is the word my mother uses to account for any unpleasant parts of a story – whether personal anecdote or family history. She can use it to refer to large-scale events – divorces, disappearances, children born out of wedlock, drownings; or small-scale ones – disobedience, delinquency, crass language, popular music. See also Notes on My Family’s Pioneer Stories.
The entries range from the historical to the personal, and usually blend the two. Under the entry for the murderous Lafferty Brothers, we are instructed to “see also, Anderson, Brad,” Palmer’s friend whose mother, who would die of cancer, was an attorney for Ron Lafferty.
In his entry for Brigham Young, Palmer notes that:
A small park has been constructed around [Young’s] gravesite in Salt Lake City, the location of which bordered my old apartment building. In the park, there is a statue of a bronze Brigham Young sitting on a bench reading the scriptures to some bronze children peering over his shoulder. A few years ago, vandals managed to loosen and steal the welded book, so for a while, he was holding nothing. Or, you could put whatever book you wanted there – Soul on Ice, Ariel, Lolita – though none of them fit perfectly in his hand. The best fit was a collected anthology of Golden Age Wonder Woman comics. A series of photos show me leaning in with the bronze children as Brother Young reads to us from different books.
By the time we near the end of the alphabet he uses the letter “X” to reference the drawings he made on his hands. “I was lonely. Occasionally my worldly choices tasted as bitter as she suggested they would. I felt like a fraud because I knew I couldn’t even approximate the intensity of the other straight edgers. I still prayed sometimes. Heart of hearts, I didn’t really care about sobriety. See also Beliefs; Straight Edge.”
And he ends the alphabet with:
After being driven out of everywhere else, the Mormon Zion ended up being in Utah. With due respect to the previous stops, this was a much better Zion than the sweaty Midwest. Because of the mountains, it’s difficult to ruin, despite strong efforts. Any time you feel despair, you just have to look up. See also Timpanogos; Water.
Zion from My Rearview Mirror
You get the concept. Beautifully woven with yet more of the same encyclopedic structure to appear in a later section, along with more death, more puzzling death, it becomes unshakable this artful prose of Michael William Palmer’s. It sticks with you in the way his religion can’t with him. Yet, given the way he presents his faith, I am troubled to see that it did not.
Palmer grew up in Utah, left the state, and received his Ph.D. in English-Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. He lives in Forest Park, Illinois. This is his first book. It is the winner of the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize.
Baptizing the Dead and Other Jobs
Michael William Palmer
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.