Saturday, September 19, 2009
No Going Back
No Going Back by Jonathan Langford was a hard book for me to read. It brought me back all too vividly to my life as a teenage gay Mormon, being torn apart by my religion on one side and my sexual orientation on the other, and all the unpleasantness that entailed. Fifteen-going-on-sixteen-year-old Paul's story is hardly an exact replica of mine--Paul's is much more interesting--but he and teenage me have enough in common that immersing myself in his world was very much like taking a trip back to my youth. I haven't felt so angsty in a long time. Despite that discomfort, or more likely because of it, I found myself not wanting to put the book down. I flew through a year and a half of young Paul's life in less than three days, and would have done so quicker if not for distractions like work and sleep.
I was a little hesitant going into No Going Back because I knew it was written from an orthodox Mormon view of homosexuality--that homosexual feelings are not a sin but homosexual behavior is--and over the past several years I have come to have very strong objections to this point of view (the latter part, not the former). I was happy to find, though, that I don't mind reading fiction written from a perspective opposed to my own, so long as the author doesn't warp his presentation of reality in order to support that viewpoint. Langford's novel is, as a blurb on the back states, a "thoroughly orthodox" Mormon novel in that the main characters remain loyal to orthodox Mormon doctrine, but he places them in a world that rings true to the world I see, where other characters are just as loyal to other beliefs (including several who fall closer to my own), and none of them are portrayed two-dimensionally. Just about every character, from the protagonist to his straight best friend to his mom and the bishop and the members of the high school gay-straight alliance, breathes with the life only an author's love can infuse. I certainly don't get the sense that Langford thinks any less of his non-Mormon characters than his Mormon ones. If anyone is portrayed unsympathetically, it's the members of Paul's priests' quorum who ridicule him for being a "faggot."
An English professor of mine liked to talk about good novels being both a mirror and a window (and I'm sure he got this concept from someone else, but I don't feel like looking it up). As a former gay Mormon teenager, I can safely say that this book does a good job of providing me a mirror--perhaps too well. An added strength of the book, though, is that it does not spend all its time in Paul's head. Much of the narration is devoted to Paul's best friend, his mother, his bishop, and several other characters. I enjoyed the windows this provided me into what it might be like to be a gay kid's straight friend, or to be a gay kid's mother, and so on. And lest we think the world revolves around angsty gay teenagers, each of these characters is developed beyond his or her role in relation to Paul, so we get equally enlightening glimpses into the lives of a woman going through a mid-life crisis, a man trying to balance his various roles, a kid struggling in school. This is what good novels do--they help us better understand ourselves and others.
Every now and then I read something that reflects a part of me so accurately that I want to tell everyone I care about, "Here, read this! You will understand this part of me in ways I'm incapable of making you understand." I had that experience with Alan Rex Mitchell's Angel of the Danube, a novel I read shortly after serving an LDS mission in Europe, when all other portrayals of LDS missionary life I saw were so different from what I'd known. I had the same experience when reading the antepenultimate chapter of Robert Mayer's Superfolks, at a time when I knew few would understand, when I hardly understood my reasons for returning to a heterosexual marriage when there were untapped universes of homosexual relationships to explore. No Going Back doesn't reflect my life as it is now, but it reflects a part of my life--and based on my emotional reaction, a part I still haven't fully recovered from--in such a way that makes me want to shove it in front of everyone I know and insist they read it. I won't actually do that (I've never been very good at proselytizing), but I will say that I think the book is worth your time.