On the Road to Heaven is two autobiographical tales in one book: the story of Newell’s conversion, from hippie to Saint, or, as he puts it, from Zero to Zion; and the story of his mission to Colombia. He weaves his love for Annie, a teenage LDS girl who questions her faith and then returns to it, through both tales. I found the conversion narrative moving, compelling, believable. It’s very tough to write the divine without sounding cheesy or preachy, but Newell manages to pull it off well. The bits of grit (discussion of his drug-influenced search for God; some crude language; half-naked Colombian girls hot for American missionaries) somehow make his conversion and successful missionary labor all the more powerful. I particularly loved this poignant prayer, given at his first discussion after the missionaries taught him to pray:
…I could almost hear a real voice and I kneeled down and I said, ‘Oh, god, if you’re real, let me know, I want to know, and I want to change and I want to know if what these boys are telling me is true, they asked me to pray, and I’m really sorry for everything I’ve ever done, and I didn’t know some of it was wrong, I just didn’t know, I really didn’t, but some I did and I’m really sorry and I’ve been looking for this forever and and I wanna come back, amen.
That’s not too far off from Alma 22:17-18:
17 And it came to pass that when Aaron had said these words, the king did bow down before the Lord, upon his knees; yea, even he did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying:
18 O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day.
What makes this narrative work for me is its autobiographical form. I don’t know if that’s fair to LDS fiction writers; in fact, I’m certain that it’s completely unfair, but I think if this book were fiction I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much. This is why: there would always be an Author for me in the background. I’d wonder about that scary acid trip scene–was it really necessary? Or the description of voluptuous girls in Colombia–did we really need to know that? Why did the Author put it in? Do I wonder about scenes like that when I read non-LDS fiction? Do I sit second-guessing their authors? Yes, but usually about different things; I don’t care whether they represent their own faith well (though if they write about Mormons, I do), I just want a good story. With LDS writers, though, I’d like to agree with the way they depict Mormonism. With fiction, I can always dispute their portrayal. But I can’t second-guess autobiographical fiction; I can’t deny the truth and power of the events Newell relates, or say he shouldn’t have told it that way, since it’s his story. I’m grateful for that; it allows me to just relax as a reader, and believe, and enjoy.
Newell’s genre choice thus neatly circumvents the moral police in my brain. I suspect that I’m a lot more conservative that way than many of you out there. But I also suspect that there are many readers just like me, who might not like this book if it were straight fiction, might balk at the grit and feel conned by the conversion, but who are able to enjoy it and believe because they know that it is not just fiction, but True. That’s what Mormons look for, instinctively: we want things that feel True, literature that is True. Newell’s On The Road to Heaven hits the sweet spot of Mormon literature, that place somewhere between popular and literary LDS fiction, resonating in ways both human and divine.
On the Road to Heaven
Zarahemla Books, 2007
Softcover, 333 pages
On the Road to Heaven links:
Kent Larsen on the implications of a novel winning both the Whitney Award and the AML Novel of the Year award, at A Motley Vision
Julie Smith takes on the idea of the autobiographical novel at Times and Seasons.
On the Road to HeavenThis review>from a Catholic perspective
Coke Newell’s own explanation of his writings at A Motley Vision.
Richard Cracroft in BYU Today
Feel free to add other links in the comments if you have some favorites that I missed; I’ll go back and edit them in.