If you like short stories and you’re interested in the lives of Mormons, you should be following the work of Johnny Townsend.
Since he writes from an ex-Mormon perspective, believers often dismiss Townsend’s work as biased — or as a priori “an attack on the church” — but I think that’s a mistake. Johnny Townsend writes his characters with a great deal of compassion and empathy, whether they’re in the church or out… or somewhere in between. He demonstrates genuine interest in people and curiosity about their experiences and possibilities.
Although almost all of Townsend’s stories involve Mormons, Mormonism isn’t always center stage. He explores various possible life situations — in all their sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes surprising glory — within this milieu that he knows so well.
Here’s a taste of some of the books he’s written lately:
Behind the Zion Curtain is a series of powerful vignettes in which people grapple with one of humanity’s most pressing questions: “What should I do with my life?” Mormonism provides extensive and detailed answers, but they’re not necessarily good or helpful answers, as we see in the story of a missionary whose mission president deliberately humiliates him as a condition of promotion and in the tale of a woman who discovers that she feels relieved and free upon learning of her husband’s death.
True to real life, the exmos aren’t portrayed as having an easy time with this question either, and often find themselves at a loss when trying to figure out what to do that would be worthwhile and make a difference.
Gayrabian Nights is a short-story collection (various authors) whose premise is a riff on the classic One thousand and one Arabian Nights. In this case, the storyteller is a gay sex-worker who has been hired by a closeted-gay Mormon senator who is planning to vote in favor of a bill denying rights to same-sex couples. The young sex-worker decides to try to keep the senator up all night in hopes that he’ll miss the vote the next day — or maybe even have a change of heart.
Townsend portrays the hypocritical politician with sympathy, and even though each character starts the evening with an agenda, they grow to understand each other through the course of their magical night of wild-and-raunchy Mormon stories. It’s a refreshing story arc for our modern age of political and religious polarization.
Lying for the Lord is a short-story collection in which Johnny Townsend explores the places where relationships come into conflict with Mormon beliefs and practices. From the tale of a family who chooses to use Christmas as an intervention for an apostate family member to the story of a Mormon man whose wife refuses to follow the commandment to have children, the characters in this series are faced with interesting dilemmas that they handle in memorable ways.
Mormon lit fans, I hope you’ll enjoy this feast from Johnny Townsend!