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Dancing Naked

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The heartbreaking story of a Mormon family coping with themes of unconditional love, grief, and acceptance after a devastating tragedy

July, 1999

SKU: 1-56085-130-9 Categories: , Tag: Author: Robert Hodgson Van WagonerProduct ID: 1309

Description

Terry Walker is an even-tempered, successful mathematics professor, comfortable with his world—the order and predictability of it. He likes the kind of life one lives in a quiet Salt Lake City subdivision. At his children’s births, he masks his terror with numbers—his wife’s contractions and dilation, blood pressure, heart rate. At funerals he absorbs his grief by calculating the cubic feet of earth the coffin and vault will displace.

But control is illusive, something his fifteen-year-old son Blake never lets him forget. A sensitive boy, Blake has refused to eat meat since the time he could walk. Fearing he will hurt his friends’ feelings, Blake withdraws from a spelling bee that he could easily win. More importantly, however, Blake harbors a secret that he keeps from Terry.

Driving this important first novel are issues and characters Thomas Mann himself would have found compelling. Terry Walker’s inability to accept what he knows and does not know about his child, what he possibly could never accept, exacts a high price. Almost at the threshold of insanity, the father begins waging a war against a powerful chaos. Van Wagoner takes his readers beyond a simple foretelling of what happens in such situations to deep beneath the story’s skin, to a place readers will find familiar and perhaps even irresistible.

Tim Sandlin has commented on Dancing Naked (Sandlin is the author of Skipped Parts, a New York Times “Notable Book.”), noting how “remarkably clean” Van Wagoner’s prose is. He calls him a “first-rate writer” and adds that he “stares deep into the heart of intolerance, grief, and redemption, and does not blink.”

David Lee (Western States Book Award for My Town) considers Van Wagoner “the best contemporary writer in Utah.” Elaborating, he writes: “Reading Van Wagoner is like opening a can of biscuits: there’s the pop, the swelling, the aroma of fresh dough, and the anticipation of flavor. And the wonder: how can he fit so much into such a small vessel?”

Similarly, Levi Peterson (Association for Mormon Letters Book Award for Canyons of Grace) praises the “mastery of language” and “perfectly cadenced sentences” in Dancing Naked. He says that it is remarkable that Van Wagoner can so perfectly present “the effects of male ego—a punitive anger turned against homosexuality—upon three generations of a family.”

Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner (shown here with wife Cheri) is the recipient of Best Short Fiction awards from Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, Sunstone, and Weber Studies, and has been published in The Best of Writers at Work, In Our Lovely Deseret, and other anthologies. Dancing Naked received the highest literary awards possible from the Utah Arts Council (Publication Prize) and the Utah affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book (Utah Book Award).

Rob has also been a Resident Artist with the Utah and Wyoming Arts in Education programs, and a Writers at Work faculty member. He was Outstanding Graduate in English and psychology at Weber State University (Ogden, Utah). He and his wife are Utah natives but now live in Washington state. They say they are the proud parents of two sons, one rottweiler, and a big orange lizard.

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5 reviews for Dancing Naked

  1. There is nothing subtle about Robert Van Wagoner’s first novel, Dancing Naked, nothing at all. Released in October by Signature Press, a small publishing house known and respected for its promotion of scholarly work critical of Mormon history, the novel has already caused a great deal of local controversy. Van Wagoner, himself a former Mormon missionary and practicing Mormon, was warned by church authorities that, because of the complaints they’d received from church members attending his reading, they would be watching him closely. Van Wagoner, who now resides in Concrete, Washington, with his wife and two children, finds the criticism predictable but bristles at the notion that this work is anti-Mormon. Such attacks on Dancing Naked have only benefited Signature Press’ advance sales. It is, in many ways, the best publicity Van Wagoner could hope for, coming from a state that has often lost talented Mormon fiction writers to just such nonsense.

  2. The first drafts of Dancing Naked contained no mention of Mormons, even though the novel is set in Salt Lake City. Then author Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner realized his book needed a “firmer grounding in place.” So he added details from the LDS culture to texture the writing.

    The result is a book that one reviewer calls “the first great Mormon novel.” And Dancing Naked‘s grounding in place is so firm now that the novel has been named the 1999 Utah Book of the Year, an award recognizing “the book judged to best represent the literary culture of the state.” Van Wagoner will receive the award, the first presented by the newly established Utah Center for the Book, at a ceremony tonight.

    Van Wagoner is flattered and grateful for the praise his book is attracting, but he hopes readers will see beyond the local color and recognize the universality of the issues—gay rights, prejudice, sexual repression and family dysfunction—that are addressed in Dancing Naked.

    “It’s not a niche-able novel,” Van Wagoner said in a telephone interview from Washington State, where he, his wife and two sons moved last summer from Utah. “I worked hard to make sure that I was dealing with universal issues. . .Many of the issues are not Mormon-specific. It’s just that that is the environment I was born and raised in and that is what I know about.”

  3. You wouldn’t think a novel about gay issues, with the title Dancing Naked, would sell well in Utah, the key state for the conservative Mormon community, which lately has been in the news for opposition to same-sex marriage initiatives.

    But that’s been the case for the first novel by 35-year-old, Mormon-raised and now Washington State resident Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner. His book tells of a Mormon professor’s confrontation of his past and his homophobia, following the “dancing naked” death of his 15-year-old son, who accidentally hangs himself during an autoerotic act.

    The book is currently the #1 title in the state on Amazon.com and a strong seller at the state’s chain stores as well as indies (it’s the #2 seller, just behind Harry Potter books, at Salt Lake City’s Sam Weller Books). Van Wagoner won a Utah Arts Council Publication Prize for his book, giving his publisher $5000 toward publication, and late last year Dancing Naked was named the 1999 Utah Book of the Year, the first award presented by the newly established Utah Center for the Book.

  4. Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner has written the first great Mormon novel, Dancing Naked. The novel, Van Wagoner’s first, achieves greatness by exploring universal themes through the specifics of the Mormon experience.

    One day Terry Walker, a mathematics professor at the University of Utah, returns home to find his 15-year-old son, Blake, dead, hanging by a belt from the curtain rod of an upstairs bathroom. The death is ruled accidental, because near Blake were pictures of men engaged in homosexual acts, and investigators believe the boy was engaged in a homoerotic act. Blake’s death forces Terry to explore his own past, a past of hatred of homosexuals fostered by his father’s macho insistence that Terry be manly, with manliness defined by Mormon traditions.

    Within this framework, Van Wagoner takes Walker deeper and deeper into his own psyche, using sometimes-lyric language as the vehicle, exposing Walker’s fears, hatreds, doubts, and emotional incompetencies so thoroughly that the protagonist, and the reader, is left drained but refreshed. Like all great literature, Dancing Naked reaches heights by dwelling in depths.

  5. Outside orthodox Mormon circles, where historical and romantic fiction titles sometimes sell enough copies to make national bestseller lists if such titles were monitored, Robert Van Wagoner’s novel titled Dancing Naked is the biggest literary sensation to hit Utah in some time. People are calling Dancing Naked the new Backslider in terms of literary impact, and publisher Signature Books has confirmed that—so far—the novel’s sales are on track to match Levi Peterson’s 20,000-copy pinnacle of contemporary, serious Mormon literature. For Dancing Naked, Van Wagoner received a $5,000 publication award from the Utah Arts Council and the Utah Book Award from the Utah Center for the Book.

    Is the novel worth the attention and praise it has received? After I read the earlier versions of the manuscript’s first couple of chapters excerpted in Signature’s In Our Lovely Deseret, a recent anthology of Mormon fiction, I predicted the forthcoming novel would be sensationalistic and overwritten. However, after digesting the whole novel I count myself among Van Wagoner’s fans. If, as some have argued, a novel’s deepest purpose is to seek and portray psychological truth—a relative, humanistic form of truth if there ever was one—then Dancing Naked is a deep novel indeed. Although it contains some Mormon elements, Dancing Naked is not really a Mormon novel—rather, it is a human novel about death, marriage, parenthood, family dynamics, sexuality, and other universal themes. For a young, first-time novelist who worked on his manuscript from approximately ages 25 to 34 (revising it more than 50 times), Van Wagoner is surprisingly convincing in the novel’s emotional depth and clarity. I found myself wondering if he had personally experienced death, because the scenes of grief seemed so expertly done. He handles middle-aged marriage, intergenerational conflict, and lifelong friendship equally well.

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