The Backslider

$25.95

One of Signature Books's best selling novels, which explores  themes of sin and redemption from a non-traditional Mormon perspective.

Originally published in 1986

SKU: 978-1-56085-218-6 Categories: , Tags: , , , Author: Levi S. PetersonProduct ID: 1291

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The Backslider features longstanding Christian conflicts played out in a scenic, sparsely populated area of southern Utah. A young ranch-hand, Frank Windham, conceives of God as an implacable enemy of human appetite. He is a dedicated sinner until family tragedy catapults him into an arcane form of penitence preached among frontier Mormons. He is saved by an epiphany that has proved both popular and controversial among some readers, either interpreting it as an extreme impiety or celebrating it as a moving and entirely plausible rendering of a biblical theme in a Western setting.

Frank comes into contact with a host of rural and urban characters. Of central importance is his Lutheran girlfriend, Marianne, whom Frank seduces, begrudgingly marries, and eventually loves. Frank’s extended family is just a generation removed from polygamy and still energized by old-time grudges and deprivations. Along the way Frank encounters a closeted secular humanist, a polygamist prophet, a psychiatrist, a Mason, government employees, college professors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs—all drawn with heightened realism reminiscent of Charles Dickens or the grotesque forms of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

The story engages readers as it alternates almost imperceptibly between Frank’s naïve consciousness and the more informed awareness of its narrator. It can be read as a love story, a satiric comedy, or a dark and sobering study of self-mutilation. Shifting from one to another, it builds suspense and elicits complex emotions, among them a profound sense of compassion. More joyous than cynical, it sympathizes deeply with the plight of all of God’s backsliders.

Levi S. Peterson, Professor of English Emeritus, Weber State University, lives in Issaquah, Washington. His works include the novel, Aspen Marooney; two anthologies of short stories, The Canyons of Grace and Night Soil; an award winning biography, Juanita Brooks: Mormon Woman Historian; and his own autobiography, A Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning. He is past editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

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8 reviews for The Backslider

  1. It isn’t often that a living writer hears his work called a classic—at least on the Mormon literary scene. But that’s what has happened to Levi Peterson, professor emeritus of English at Weber State University, who is now seventy-three.

    Signature Books has published a twenty-year anniversary edition of his critically praised and popular book “The Backslider.” For which I say, kudos.

    When Peterson retired, he and his wife, Althea, moved to Issaquah, Washington, to be near their daughter and their grandchildren. While there, Peterson finished his splendid, critically acclaimed autobiography, “A Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning” (2006).

    But his literary career started with “The Backslider,” his first novel, a realistic book about Frank Windham, a young southern Utah cowboy who wrestles with his Mormon faith. Peterson characterizes Frank as a man “with a square jaw, a big mouthful of white teeth, a button nose and a shock of brown hair which bounced above his shingled temples like loose hay on a wagon.”

    When the book was published in 1986, it was immersed in controversy. Some Mormon readers were offended by the thought that a young man would be depicted as having theological struggles. Others were disturbed that a Mormon author would even deal with issues such as sex and, in multifaceted ways, sin.

    Peterson’s character is a Mormon through and through, but he is very interested in women and constantly beset by temptations, especially lust—and he frequently gives in to them. He has illicit sex with Marianne, a non-Mormon daughter of the man for whom he works.

    When she becomes pregnant, he does the right thing and marries her, even though he doesn’t love her. While they are married, he falls in love with her. He worries so much about his sins that he is convinced that his soul is lost, but he also repents with some regularity.

    He wants to feel “spiritual” but doesn’t really understand how that is done. Frank knows what he thinks is right and he desperately wants to measure up, but God remains mysterious to him.

    More important, some Mormons identified with “The Backslider” and could understand many of Frank’s worries and mistakes. Reading it made them feel that they were not alone in the doubts, struggles, and problems that often come with a religious commitment.

    Mormon literary critics have correctly compared Peterson to Charles Dickens and William Faulkner in his ability to translate his culture to the printed page. Because he didn’t start writing until he reached his forties, he has written just seven other books. They’re probably all better than they would have been if he had started in his twenties.

    Re-reading “The Backslider” presents the unmistakable feeling that it has weathered two decades very well indeed. It is still as relevant as it was in 1986, and Peterson’s delicious prose is filled with humorous interpretations and traditional Mormon sayings that are bound to make almost any Mormon feel at home.

    Moreover, his ability to create characters and advance plot is probably unparalleled among Mormon writers. Had he, like Faulkner, come from the Southern culture, his name would probably be nationally known and appreciated.

    Peterson’s book is also filled with humor, warmth, tolerance, and love. (Be warned, however, that the story includes an account of self-mutilation.)

  2. Very much in the humorous tradition of Mark Twain, Peterson has a special knack for carrying certain aspects of Mormon belief to their absurd conclusion, a knack which is bound to exasperate the orthodox as much as it will delight the heterodox. Frank remembers how, as boys, he and his brother had led their dog Rupert into the waters of baptism noting that “he won’t make the Celestial Kingdom unless he’s baptized,” after which they nearly drowned the poor beast: “If his foot comes out of the water, we’ve got to do it over” since “God will send you to hell if part of you ain’t under the water” (p. 108). When a black raven appears on the scene, Frank shouts “Keeerummm, it’s the Holy Ghost!” and the parody is complete. Is this irreverent and even blasphemous, or is it a good-humored and creative adaptation or idiosyncratic Mormon practices and folklore? I would submit that answering this question is very much like taking Rorschach test—the truth of the matter lies more in the beholder than in what is beheld.

    Although in Levi Peterson, the backwaters of Utah may not yet have found their Shakespeare, they certainly have at least found their very own John Steinbeck! In a sense, The Backslider is the first instance of a new genre which combines in broad strokes with subtle touches caricature, humor, theology, folklore, and plain old everyday horse sense in a way which readers will either admire or detest, but which must be approached on its own terms. This trail-blazing first novel is a veritable tour de force, which, I predict, will create even more admirers for Peterson and which whets the appetite of the true aficionado for more, much more, in the same vein.

  3. In its essence, The Backslider is a love story, both sacred and profane, romantic and universal. The developing relationship between Frank and Marianne is a brambly thicket of passions and neuroses, the complex entanglement of a self-destructive, deeply conflicted Mormon with a self-defined, headstrong Lutheran. Their honeymoon in Las Vegas, with Marianne pregnant and Frank determined to love her “like a sister” in penance for his premarital predilections, is both painful and hilarious. Frank’s affection for outsiders, eccentrics and underdogs also places him in impossible situations. He finds himself playing virtual midwife to a runaway, polygamous wife, who inveighs on him to ease her labor pains by administering to her with olive oil. Out of touch and practice with this sacred Mormon obligation, he must scrounge the streets of Richfield for both a partner and the accoutrements. He is joined by another Mormon miscreant, a seedy attorney named Russell T. Jarbody; they borrow the consecrated oil from a Richfield mechanic who keeps it in a stoppered Coca Cola bottle in the glove compartment of his pickup.

  4. Levi Peterson, I think, is a more deliberately “Mormon” writer than Linda Sillitoe. In his previous collection of stories, The Canyons of Grace, he deals explicitly with Mormon theological concerns, with a good deal of humanity, complexity, and narrative craft. Like the stories in this earlier book, Peterson’s novel The Backslider draws on such religious themes as sin and redemption, works and grace, and the tension between the individual will and obedience to God.

    Peterson’s protagonist is a lustful, yet on the whole decent Mormon cowboy named Frank Windham who struggles with his own sense of damnation and resentment towards God. The crucial tensions arises from Frank’s negative view of his sexuality. He loves life in an earthy, sensual manner, but he is convinced that God condemns him for it. In an effort to atone for his sons, he engages in stringent and obsessive asceticism and self-mortification. He marries a Lutheran girl he doesn’t (at first) love, but whom he had gotten pregnant. He eats only bland foods. He only has sex with his wife once a week. He feels guilty for eating with relish, swearing, exceeding the speed limit, and even for not thinking about spiritual things for a few hours. His self-punishment reaches a climax when he considers taking his own life by self-mutilation in an act of blood atonement.

    This seems pretty heavy fare, and Peterson’s treatment is duly serious and poignant. Nevertheless, The Backslider is a funny novel with more quirks and twists and shocks and strangeness and suspense than we could ask for from a purely comic writer. It is randy and rollicking. If it were made into a movie it might be rated R for explicit sex and grotesque violence (there are castration scenes—and not only of animals). Despite its graphic detail and raunchiness however, The Backslider is perhaps the most important Mormon novel I’ve seen yet. I’m not an expert on Mormon literature, but it seems that of the novels written from Mormon culture and experience, the most successful novels have been the least “Mormon,” and the most “Mormon” (at least topically) have been the poorest novels by artistic and literary standards.

    Since I believe that the first allegiance of a writer should be to the language and to universal experience rather than to his narrow cultural background (though the two are obviously intertwined), I have normally looked askance at most self-consciously “Mormon” literature. I think any writer’s main consideration should be to tend well to his craft and to write from authentic experience. If Mormon theology is significant in his life, it will manifest itself naturally from these primary concerns. The Backslider is important in Mormon literature because in it, Peterson achieves for the most part an aesthetically authentic religious vision. Though this has been done before in other religions, to my mind Peterson’s book is the most successful attempt in Mormonism so far. As to whether Peterson is making light of, or shedding light on sacred things—well, you decide.

  5. In “Trends in Mormon Fiction,” an article that appeared in this newsletter in March 1985, Lavina Fielding Anderson noted that “full-length treatments” of the Mormon experience seemed to be “extremely rare,” and she enthusiastically anticipated the publication of several that she had either heard of or seen as manuscripts. Thanks to Signature Books, two of those novels have been published, and, having read them, I share Ms. Anderson’s enthusiasm.

    My favorite of the two, Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, deals boldly with the topic of Mormon sexual repression and guilt. Examining the relationship between religion and insanity, Peterson peoples his novel with fanatics: a Mormon mother who refuses to eat refined sugar or red meats, a man who castrates himself with a hunting knife, a polygamist commanded by God to marry a whore and re-name her Gomer, and congregations of petty neurotics.

    The protagonist, Frank Windham, progress from a mildly philosophical sinner who carries a ready supply of condoms and a deck of pornographic playing cards, to a reformed saint whose self-denial escalates into plain old-fashioned masochism. Frank keeps written accounts of his sins, which include gluttony, worldliness, shirking his righteous mother’s advice and hating her bland cooking, resenting his boss, cursing, and “worst of all, day and night his belly was ripe with lust; lechery roamed inside him, rattling every door, trying every window.”

    Pivotal in Frank’s change from a sinner to a struggling saint is a vision of a vengeful God who can’t look on sin “with the least degree of allowance.” In the vision, he sees himself through the sights of a gun and senses God’s finger on the trigger, ready to obliterate him at any moment.

    Just when Frank believes he’s extricated himself, an old sin comes back to haunt him. An ex-boss’s daughter is pregnant, a crisis that throws Frank into further paroxysms that at their most intense are suicidal. Frank loses himself in the impossibly rigorous demands of his own world view.

    At some point, readers may consider Frank hopelessly doomed to self-destruction. Grace is a concept that most Mormons don’t share with other Protestants—at least not in its fullest sense, that of an individual’s complete powerlessness even to play a role in saving humor herself. In my mind, Peterson’s denouncement is an existential affirmation of grace—a seeming oxymoron. It simply is not to be missed.

    The novel is alive with black humor and biting irony of the kind that would make Mark Twain himself proud. But unlike Twain, who most critics agree allowed himself too much buffoonery in the last section of Huckleberry Finn, Peterson’s wit maintains a very precise balance. Additionally, Peterson is a consummate Stylist, as his first paragraph shows:

    At three-thirty on a May morning, Frank Windham got out of his bunk and said his prayer. He reminded God of their bargain, which was that if God would give him Rhoda, he would live up to every jot and tittle of the commandments. Actually, it was Frank’s bargain, God never having confirmed it. That was the way with God. He never offered Frank any signs, he never gave him any encouragement. He left him penned up with his own perversity like a man caught in a corral with a hostile bull.

    Peterson recently told me that a Mormon home teacher thanked him for writing the novel, saying that he was using it to reactivate the jack-Mormons whom he visited. Neo-orthodox Mormons may find the novel reprehensible; however, those hovering around the edges will find it refreshingly candid—perhaps an omen of future breadth, tolerance and openness of discussion.

  6. It’s safe to say that Levi Peterson’s novel The Backslider will not appeal to everyone. (That’s about all it’s safe to say about this book.) There is little doubt that some readers will be offended, shocked, disgusted by it. But for the rest of us it’s a blast of fresh air. Laughing, weeping, rejoicing over Frank Windham and his friends, we might want to compare The Backslider to the best of Flannery O’Conner—except that here is more bawdy hilarity, more compassion, more tenderness, more love. Maybe it’s Levi’s skill, or his experience, or even his theology. But whatever it is, we’ve got ourselves one helluva book here.

  7. “A Mormon cult classic, even though we’re not a cult anymore. Like the Book of Mormon itself, The Backslider deftly yet humbly afflicts the comforted and comforts the afflicted. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll never eat oysters again. And after meeting Cowboy Jesus, you’ll (thankfully) never be the same.”

  8. “Be warned: you cannot “unsee” The Backslider. As Frank’s guilt-ridden, hormone-ravaged, God-hunted soul is laid bare, female readers will cringe in horror, while male readers cringe in recognition.”

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