Levi S. Peterson
Benson Y. Parkinson
Signature Books , 1995. Softcover:
Suggested retail price: $15.95 (US)
Jon Reeves, the narrator in Michael Fillerup's Beyond theRiver, frets about the impossibility of writing while pursuingthe Mormon lifestyle, what with job, marriage, children, andchurch responsibilities. Levi Peterson's career both gives thelie to and confirms that bind. He has managed to publish twostory collections, a biography, and now two novels while raisinga family, getting a PhD., and living the life of a professor anddepartment chair at Weber State University. Five books to hiscredit, all of them well received -- but only five. AspenMarooney is his second novel and already he's writing aboutforty year high school reunions and about characters lookingtowards retirement and concerned about their grandchildren.
So, has age tamed Aspen Marooney and Durfey Haslam, her highschool lover? This book features no violent deaths, likeCanyons of Grace, nor self-mutilations, like The Backslider,nor suicides waiting to happen, like Canyons and Nightsoil. But passion, specifically guilty passion, is what interests LeviPeterson, and it's still there.
The book opens on Durfey driving across Nevada with his wifeElaine, headed for the Shakespeare festival in Cedar City and hisclass reunion in Richfield. He has avoided reunions for fortyyears for fear of running into Aspen. Durfey is an insuranceinvestigator in the Los Angeles area, successful butdissatisfied, sensing he missed his calling. As a boy he wantedto be a cowboy, then a steamboat captain. Durfey comes from aninactive LDS family, poor farmers, near the bottom of Richfield'ssocial ladder, with a skeleton or two in the closet, whichcontributes to his low self-esteem. He works hard, is good withhis children, attends church, and takes things as they come. Hisbelated confession to Elaine of his youthful indiscretions withAspen brought them near divorce. She won't let him tell her heloves her, perhaps not so much because of his sin, but because ofthe way he still pines for Aspen.
The point of view shifts to Aspen now, headed south from theSalt Lake Valley to the same reunion with her husband Roger. Shetoo has Durfey on her mind. Aspen's parents didn't approve ofDurfey, and she slept with him at least partly to force the issueof marriage, though in the end she lost her nerve, went to BYU,and married Roger instead. Roger is in Church administration, akind and patient though not particularly passionate man. Theyhave eight children to Durfey's three, most of whom have turnedout well. The big exception is Gerald, who is obstinately bitterand profane. Aspen has never confessed her sin to anyone, nother husband, certainly not the bishop, but that is not all she'skept to herself. In the course of the reunion, during a chanceencounter in a drug store, she lets slip to Durfey, dazed from afat lip he got from an old enemy, that Gerald is his son. Rogerdoesn't know, Gerald doesn't know, and she begs Durfey not totell anyone.
The book takes us through a 24th of July parade, the rodeothat night, and sessions of the reunion. We are introduced to atypical bevy of Peterson characters -- colorful, rambunctious, andprofane -- along the way. Several, as in Peterson's other fiction,speak alike, delighting in big words, with a habit of reflectingout loud with little provocation. I've noticed that Levi speakslike that himself -- though the cadence, the facial expression, andthus a measure of his warmth, are often missing when hischaracters do so on paper. The book has a strong, clearstructure, and certain passages that mix powerful, conflictingemotions, are as effective as anything Peterson has ever written. Toby's frenzied dance on the float while Durfey roils and Aspenholds her welted cheek (p. 63), the counterpoint of Durfey'shalf-heard reminiscing through Elaine's heavy brooding (p.80) -- this is superb and moving writing. A few places could havebeen fleshed out more, and half a dozen passages refer to thingsthat haven't been explicitly described in the narrative. Isuspect this book underwent harsher cuts than it deserved.
Peterson's characters, though obsessed with religiousissues, are typically drawn from the fringes of Mormonism. Onething that impressed me in this book was his sympathetictreatment of Roger, a man wholly in the Church. Here is an LDSpatriarchal figure who is not in any way hypocritical oroverbearing, who is diligent in his concern for those heperceives as in his charge, who seeks to move them only throughkindness, persuasion, and longsuffering, never railing orcondemning or seeking to compel -- even the adolescent Gerald. (Compare Fillerup's narrator's father decking him when hechallenges his belief in God.) This is an ongoing theme withPeterson -- Roger is a good man, but a man without strong, unrulypassions, who takes to the Church and civilized society becausethere is no real wildness in him. Durfey is (mostly) tamedbecause he wants what civilization and the Church can give him,but Roger is just naturally tame. There is a particular kind ofpatriarch that I've been looking for in Mormon literature,passionate but committed to the Church, hard working, creative,tickling, joshing, gruff and grumbling, but also reverent, andwith a masculine tenderness. Peterson hits on one side or theother, with passionless men like Roger or Darrow in"Shriveprice," and with fanatics like Jeremy Windham in TheBackslider or the polygamists in "Canyons of Grace." The onlyhope he holds out for passionate men is that age will smother thefire, make them more like women. For example, it occurs toDurfey that "men were less and less masculine and more and morehuman as they got older. The world was better for that fact. Itwas too bad men didn't age sooner" (192).
Anyone who was ever stood up for a date will relate toDurfey's anger and confusion over Aspen's original parting. Shehad returned several months after his initial confession,explaining that she couldn't marry him, but then sleeping withhim three times during the night. He assumed she had changed hermind, but he never sees her again until the reunion forty yearslater. Anyone who has ever felt torn between doing what shewants and what society wants will relate to Aspen's indecision,her inability to give Durfey up, or to go against her parentswishes, even though she knows clinging to both will lead her toruin. I hope not too many will relate to the way that, all grownup, these two let themselves fall into old traps, especially onthe last day of the reunion, when they find themselves climbingthe hill to the grove, laying out their clothes on the ground (166), or to the way they nurse their guilt. Durfey is
willing to assert that when a respectable man and woman, nearing sixty and virtually strangers to one another, disrobe in a sundrenched grove, undeterred by their own ridiculous nudity, it is not for erotic pleasure. Rather it is for the perfection of their guilt, which is self-initiated punishment, a mode of self-replicating pain. (189)
Aspen comes to realize she will not confess.
She cherished her unworthiness too much [...] If she had learned anything at this reunion, it was that her secret had long ago become as indispensable as breathing. [...] Down some dark Fallopian conduit of her spirit swam a seminal power. Each year her secret doubled and redoubled in its cells. It fed, it stirred, it exerted weight within her abdomen -- vital, reassuring, beloved. Without it there was no such person as Aspen Marooney. (210-11)
Unlike the unfocused guilt that afflicts so muchintellectual Mormon fiction, this is guilt for actual sin, thoughapparently still not the sort that will do the sufferer any good. In poeticizing that aspect of their lives, Peterson might beaccused of ennobling their adultery. In their minds, Aspen andDurfey are willing to sacrifice their integrity and their hope ofsalvation for the good of others, continuing to go to the templerather than arouse suspicion, refusing to confess and have itwreck their homes. There is no evidence in this book that theremight exist a true repentance, capable of healing them and theirfamilies.
But people do think like that. People fall into old trapsand nurse their guilt, and fail to repent and get testimonies. The author shows his characters' basic worth and goodness andacquaints the reader with their pain. It is difficult not to seethe writing of a book like this as a moral act. Petersonincreases our empathy with our understanding.
© 1996 Benson Parkinson