About five years ago, when the Best American Short Stories for 2008 were announced, I was disappointed to see among them one called "Missionaries," by Bradford Tice. I had read the story more than once shortly after it was published in the Atlantic, and its selection for the annual anthology is not hard to understand: "Missionaries," which depicts two young men preaching the Mormon gospel in Knoxville, Tenn., is engaging and nicely crafted. It's a pretty good short story. But it got Mormonism all wrong.
I couldn't see past that. It was clear to me that Tice himself wasn't Mormon and never had been; he made mistakes about the terminology, and the missionaries' routines didn't match those I'd heard about. More importantly, the attitudes and personal bearings of the missionaries just didn't seem Mormon to me. I never served a mission myself - I decided I didn't believe in the Latter-day Saint gospel right around the age, 19, when young men usually begin preparing for their missions. Perhaps because I never had the experience, I wanted badly to read an account of one that had the ring of truth and the shape of a good story.
"Missionaries" got me thinking and, eventually, writing about what it might take to write a great work of Mormon fiction. In the couple of years since I published a piece on that subject, a handful of writers have mentioned reading it as they gave me copies of their own books. One of them was "Elders," by Ryan McIlvain. Set in Brazil in 2003, "Elders" is written from the close third-person perspective of two missionaries, Elder McLeod and Elder Passos. ("Elder" is a priesthood title conferred on all male missionaries.) The latter is a native Brazilian. Passos, we learn, was initially receptive to Mormonism because his mother died when he was young: Mormons believe that families reunite in the afterlife. The church and the mission also represent for Passos a path to the United States and a college education at Brigham Young University. McIlvain dissects the mix of need and ambition and genuine faith that fuel a disciplined devotion to a demanding way of life, and he's also sensitive to the sometimes imperial obliviousness of Mormon missionary efforts overseas. At one point, the mission president - the church authority who oversees those efforts in a given region - while speaking to his American and Brazilian charges, asks them, and "not rhetorically," "How do you say deliverables in Portuguese?"
McIlvain has obviously worked to understand his Brazilian protagonist, but it's the American one who feels not only thought through, but lived in. His motivations are murkier, and his attitude more ambiguous. McLeod didn't have a strong testimony in the Mormon gospel before he left for his mission but was committed to "experimenting on the Word," living out the faith in the hope that a testimony would come. It doesn't go that well.
This is not a tale of disillusionment, building toward some atheistic epiphany-it's more earthbound than that. "Elders" is earnest about the mundane challenges of missionary work - a lot of reading scriptures and knocking on doors to find people who mostly aren't interested - and honest about the tedium of missionary life. That tedium is a challenge for the novel: There's not a tremendous amount of obvious drama in these men's lives. Much of "Elders" concerns the attempt by Passos and McLeod to convert a young woman named Josefina and her husband, Leandro. The dynamics of the situation are complex - McLeod becomes attracted to Josefina, though he has a hard time admitting it, and Leandro is jealous and a drunk - but the principals spend just a few hours together each week, and those hours are so formally constrained that not much can really happen. The book builds to a fairly drastic resolution, but it takes a while to get there. Admirably, McIlvain doesn't go in for cheap plot devices or easy melodrama. But I sometimes thought this story lent itself more to a novella than a novel.
As it happens, while I was reading "Elders" another work of fiction arrived in the mail, with the title "Godforsaken Idaho" and a familiar portrait of Joseph Smith on the cover. I cracked open the collection by Shawn Vestal and found a short story called "Winter Elders," which grabbed me from the opening line: "They materialized with the first snow." "They" are a pair of missionaries, and the man who sees them in the snow is an ex-Mormon named Bradshaw. This is a tale of missionary work from the perspective of the target. And it is a dark tale. It's also psychologically astute and elegantly written, like much of Vestal's book. Other stories dig into the Mormon past and imagine life after death. With his interest in violence and carefully wrought sentences, Vestal occasionally recalls Brian Evenson, who is probably the most accomplished ex-Mormon fiction writer at the moment. (Check out Evenson's riveting and disturbing "Open Curtain," for a start.)
That honorific may sound comically specific, but McIlvain, Vestal and Evenson prove that it's not an easy title to hold. Is there such a thing as a "great Mormon novel"? Will there ever be? I'm not sure. But there is now, undeniably, a Mormon presence in American letters.