Looking for Answers
Steven L. Peck's The Scholar of Moab
Hyrum Thayne, the protagonist of Steven L. Peck’s riotously original novel The Scholar of Moab, writes, “I think this story is interesting cause my other friend had strange things happen too. There are weird things in the world. Strange even for a Scientist & Scholar like me.” The story Hyrum is speaking of is his friend Rick’s story, though Hyrum’s story, told in the novel by the anonymous “Redactor” who, a generation later, is trying to get to the bottom of Hyrum’s mysterious death in the ‘70s, is no less strange.
The “other friend” Hyrum refers to is another important player in the book, Dora, a poet and resident of Moab—yes, that Moab, the red rock town nestled near Utah’s La Sal mountains. Peck’s epistolary work involves space aliens (maybe), a missing baby whose paternity is in question, and conjoined twins with PhDs who, for five critical years on horseback, wrangled cattle--all in a town and its environs whose characters, including Hyrum, mix uneasily and phantasmagoric-ally with geologists, communists and imaginary Book of Mormon-era robbers.
Peck’s wild and whimsical—some might say undisciplined—scheme is to weight everything equally: philosophy, public TV revelations, evolution, the scientific method (classic and quasi), small-town hysterics, the poetic imagination—and yes, religion.
A cross between Jude the Obscure (referenced, clumsily in my view, at one point in the novel) and Huck Finn, Hyrum is a simple man who is not so simple. He is on a quest to be a scholar, and his notion of a scholar has more to do with appearances and the “right” vocabulary than innate brains or long hours in academic discourse. (“I glanced up at the mountains rising before me,” he writes in his journal at one point, “& saw my own climb into Scholardomhood.”) But he is sincere, and therefore both hilarious and touching. In his adventures as a sensing station technician for the United States Geological Survey, he works up in the mountains all week before returning on the weekend to his adoring simpleton (truly) of a wife who is nesting in a trailer park.
At one point we find our (anti)hero torching the entire reference section of the Grand County Library, ostensibly to divert suspicion from himself as he steals its non-portable dictionary, in which he hopes to look up the flurry of words he’s heard from his new scholarly associate in the field, words such as “X a Jesus,” “doggrowl,” and “Lazy fair.” “I began to feel more & more Adjudicated in what I was doing,” he says, equating himself with Leonardo Da Vinci’s robbing graves to study anatomy. “[A] whole bunch of such things that are pretty darned hard and time consummating…” (The malapropisms throughout are worth the price of admission.)
In another scenario we find Hyrum in company with the suspicious poet, Dora, in those same mountains, a kind of liminal space for all strange things that happen to Moabites. Crazies abound in this story, but Peck is sincere in positioning them as auguring questions about the nexus of consciousness, faith, desire and the natural landscape.
Many of The Redactor’s documents are taken from Dora’s diary, filled with free-association and conflations between first and third person. Here is one such passage:
Will cryptogramic soil evolve to become some intelligent thing as its components specialize, differentiate, and explore new spaces in the topology of life? This she wonders. And she wonders, because she wonders what will become of her son’s children. In to what creature will her line transmogrify? What possibilities will arise? None. Unless I can find him. Unless I can take back what is mine.
These rants from a woman who ends up, we learn early on, in the state mental hospital in Provo, simply punctuate the overall arc of the story, which is more coherent and, regularly, fall-off-the-bed funny. But their inclusion attests to the author’s respect for his wide cast of characters and for the wonder that emerges out of not only the mind but the unfathomable universe and its products. They are products as varied as the brilliant Milky Way high above the La Sal on a dark night, “the silence voiced by a plateau canyon wind,” and that moment when one feels “both immeasurably small and immeasurably important in the same instant.”
Hyrum Thayne is a part of the growing line of memorable Mormon literary characters that extends back through Levi Peterson’s Frank Windham in his The Backslider, Samuel Taylor’s Jackson Skinner Whitetop in his Heaven Knows Why and Maureen Whipple’s Clorinda in her The Giant Joshua, among others. There have already been a handful of breakout or crossover Mormon novels over the years. I think this is the most imaginative to date, perhaps corroborated by the Association for Mormon Letters which awarded it Best Novel for 2011. And if the book doesn’t find an audience outside of Utah, it won’t be because of its local religious content and references. In Scholar one can easily skate over at will the arcane references to home teachers, Lamanites and the LDS lifestyle even while picking up on the essential (and delightful) atmospherics.
As it is, The Scholar of Moab tumbles forth, pell-mell, with generosity and a wry eye for the exquisite frailty of our desire to find not only meaning in the universe, but a purpose for our existence. Any answers that are given easily—whether in philosophy, in science or in religion—never seem to be completely satisfying— are often vastly unsatisfying. Only a narrative that is as big-hearted and deftly-written as Peck’s can suggest the whole of the world and our stubborn longing for a unifying theory of truth that will always, thankfully for the purposes of literature, elude us.
Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah
Gallery MAR UP: Amy Ringholz's Kingdom features twenty new paintings by the Wyoming artist.|1| Her energetic canvases and vivid imagination combine to create an inspired array of animals, each with their own playful personalities. UPCOMING: Fred Calleri's Super Sonic Snow Cones |2| . AND: Matt Flint's In This Moment |3|.
Julie Nester Gallery UP: Stephen Foss: The Scent of Melting Snow, abstracted paintings that call to mind natural scenes.|4| Foss applies single colors in systematic applications; he then manipulates the intersections between colors to allow simultaneous exposure of layers and compression of color. In this body of work, Foss employs a definite horizon line, resulting in paintings that read both as landscape and abstract.
Kimball Art Center UPCOMING: Dwellings, an exhibit of works by Stephanie Clark, features her sewn "paintings" that use embroidery to create domestic imagery to tell the story of life in the home.|5| AND: geolines is a new series by award-winning photographer Mark Maziarz that begins with a working concept of the photograph as a recording of a moment in place and time, then explores the path of reduction and expansion of the image into new layers of color and space.|6| By using portions of his photographic images and expanding them into explosive bars of light and color, Maziarz takes moments of space and time (the “geography” of our emotions and memories) and reimagines them into stacked color lines in a range of stark and richly luminous palettes. I AND: The Art of the Brick returns to the Kimball with the LEGO sculptures of New York-based artist Nathan Sawaya.|7|
J GO Gallery UP: In Spaghetti Western western movie gun meets Western landscape in James Georgopoulos’ larger-than-life resin-coated silver gelatin photographs of Western cinema guns|8| abutting Dale Livezey’s luminous oil paintings of sublime sunset and sunrise landscapes.|9| UPCOMING: Knowledge Objects, new works that dance the line between sculpture and painting by Curtis Olson.|10| Open February 15. Through March 14.
Meyer Gallery UP:
Brian Kershisnik's annual solo exhibition, Entertaining Angels Unawares.|11| UPCOMING: Jeff Pugh solo exhibition.|12|
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art UP: LUX is an exploration of how artists have used light as a medium or subject matter. |13|
AND: Industrial Ethos: Photography by Chris Dunker
presents selections of the northern Utah-based artist's work. Dunker's fascination with urban decay provides a dystopian look at the modern, optimistic attitude of industry and manufacturing that has marked the progress and historical significance of northern Utah.|14| AND: idea,
curated by twelve students and two teachers who explored the museum's rich holdings in conceptual art, includes artwork by a variety of conceptual artists who created art primarily as an outlet for their ideas.
Eccles Community Art Center UP: In the Main Gallery the 18th Statewide Photographic Competition will feature recent (within the last two years) original photographs by resident Utah photographers. Juried by Ryne Hazen. AND: The Carriage House Gallery will feature the acrylic paintings and jewelry of Salt Lake City artist, Stephanie Saint-Thomas. Her often mystical and expressionistic renderings of land and sea reflect the beauty, mystery, and enchantment that she sees in all of life.
Gallery 25 UP: Palette Club of Ogden’s “small works competition.” Approximately 100 members of the club are spread from Bountiful to Logan, and range in ability from beginner to master professionals.
Weber State University UP: Weber State University Department of Performing Arts theatre costumes will be the featured art during the month of February in the Shepherd Union Gallery, Shepherd Union Building, WSU Ogden campus.
Weber State University Shaw Gallery UP: Annual Juried Student Art Exhibition, juried by Whitney Tassie, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
Brigham City Museum UP: Wild Land, Thomas Cole, and the Birth of American Landscape. With large-scale banner graphics and other media, Wild Land takes audiences on a journey with Cole through the story of his creative process along the Hudson River in the early nineteenth century. His genius lay in expressing the majesty, power and divinity of America's wilderness.