New novel: A Bountiful ‘Journey’ for young, struggling Mormon
May 04 2013 Special to the Salt Lake Tribune – In the masterful first book of his promised trilogy, If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home, author Max Zimmer takes us on a soul-searching journey to 1950s Bountiful, where both he and his fictional adolescent counterpart, Shake Tauffler, grew up in the shadow of Mormon Church headquarters. It’s a trip well worth taking, whether the reader’s roots are in Utah or anywhere. Readers curious about the ideas and customs that contributed to the development of men such as Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s last presidential nominee, also might find the book enlightening, since Romney and Shake received a similar religious upbringing.
Journey, recipient of a coveted ForeWord Clarion Five Star Review, is especially evocative for someone like me. I was raised in the same conservative Utah town in the mid-20th century. The story awakened so many memories, whether riding bicycles to West Bountiful’s railroad tracks to smash pennies, slurping milkshakes at Bountiful Drug’s soda fountain or watching Morry the barber slash at my brothers’ sideburns.
Yet many of those memories, stirred by Shake’s religious childhood, are painful for me, a one-time wannabe Mormon. Zimmer’s story demonstrates the church culture can be difficult for members as well. Shake struggles with issues of religious and racial prejudice when he examines doctrine concerning the curse of Cain, when he chats with Mexican workers, when his neighbors shun a generous widow who had sung in Chicago nightclubs before winding up in Bountiful’s foothills, when he listens to the black musicians who move his soul. His early confusion over faith is captured in conversation between buddies: “You’re not supposed to question things,” one declares, to which another answers, “I don’t. I just need for them to make sense.”
Although Mormonism, as described in meticulous and often gnawing detail from a 12-year-old’s point of view, has much to do with the development of Shake’s conscience and world view, he also is shaped by his Swiss parents’ anxieties. His father is so worried about fitting in and pleasing his Mormon leaders that he and his frustrated wife almost squeeze the creativity and ambition out of their sensitive yet spunky son. But Shake’s spark is kindled by outsiders who see strength and genius in his drive for the thing his immigrant parents and culture try so hard to squelch: jazz.
Yes, jazz — something that hardly fits the normal Mormon mold. Accustomed to hymns and classical music, Shake first hears jazz on the truck radio while moving to Bountiful from the sandy, southern Utah ranch where his father did the bookkeeping. Throughout this first book of the trilogy, Shake’s spark is fanned to an exhilarating flame by the trumpet, an instrument that, perhaps paradoxically, calls to Shake much as Angel Moroni’s horn alerted 19th century Americans to the Book of Mormon.
Besides being an engrossing and complex coming-of-age story, Journey is wonderfully written in a lyrical yet gutsy style akin to the work of J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain or John Steinbeck. “Bountiful,” he writes in Chapter 1. “A town whose name you can’t get used to because it doesn’t feel finished, just the start of a name, just an adjective. Bountiful. Like naming a town Little. Or Yellow or Shiny or Fat. But you’re here, here instead of Switzerland, because of your grandfather. Because he translated the Book of Mormon and a lot of Mormon hymns into the German language.” As if making a movie with words, Zimmer clearly knows what he’s doing with description and dialog.
He should. After doing graduate work and teaching writing at the University of Utah in the 1970s, Zimmer accepted an invitation to Yaddo, the legendary artists’ retreat in upstate New York. By the end of the summer, he was teaching fiction writing at the State University of New York at Oswego. His first year there, Rolling Stone magazine praised him as a raw new voice in American fiction for “Utah Died for Your Sins,” his story that won the Pushcart Prize.
Teaching has been a large part of his career — four of his SUNY students even named their rock band “Maxxzimmer” in his honor — but he also has tended bar in Manhattan and still writes for the power industry with his wife, Toni, in New Jersey. On the side, he writes a human interest column for the automotive magazine, Kit Car Builder, spoofing “Burning Man” Fieros and the art of getting ants drunk.
Journey, the first four years of a 10-year trek that takes Shake from Utah through the West and then to Austria, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online sites, as well as through Weller Book Works, The King’s English Bookshop and other local bookstores. The second book of the series, Of the World, will be released in June, and the third, Instrument of the Lord, is expected next spring. I can hardly wait to see what Shake does — and discovers — next on his search for self-awareness and maturity.
Diane Cole, a University of Utah graduate, former English teacher and retired Salt Lake Tribune editorial writer, lives in Temecula, Ca.