A Tight-Sphinctered Response to A Novel in Seven Stories

My colleague Julie Nichols’ new book Pigs When They Straddle the Air (Zarahemla Books, 2016) kept disturbing my sleep last night. The interlocking stories have great characters, many of whom are Mormons: lesbian Mormons, straight Mormons, polygamous Mormons, energy directing Mormons, criminal Mormons, herbalist Mormons, business Mormons, lapsed Mormons, priesthood wielding Mormons, feminist Mormons, and so on. Nichols likes these characters one and almost all. She weaves their stories into an intimate textile, a text whose sentences are the work of a careful and brilliant writer; she loves language as much as she loves the people of her stories. The warm-hearted and cantankerous  communities of her characters are mirrored by her rich and well crafted paragraphs.

But that wasn’t what kept waking me up. It was the healers. New-age healers, no less than Mormon priesthood healers, are, in my mind, wishful and hopeful and mistaken and sometimes outright frauds. A “master healer” from California dominates the book’s final story, the one I read before falling asleep. The healer heals an autistic boy. Horse shit, I muttered. The healer heals a comatose victim of a head wound (or perhaps it was the priesthood healers who did the healing, or was it the child performing “child reflexology” who did the healing?). Bull shit, I said. And so on.

I had been warned. Karin Anderson wrote in a blurb that the book made her willing and even delighted “to suspend my own (painful) cynicism and simply follow the mystical premises of the story.” I obviously wasn’t quite so willing to suspend my own (painstaking) cynicism.



So I woke again and again wondering what to think about a book that elicited responses from me like “chicken shit.” I wouldn’t have cared about any of this if I didn’t like the book, if I didn’t like the characters, if I didn’t find the book challenging, if it weren’t meaningful to me.

One answer came this morning when I reread a paragraph following the child reflexology healing/California healer healing/priesthood holder healing:

In every season follow nature skyward: snowshoe first at the edges of snowmelt in late March to catch the pale upturning springbeauties and woodlandstars and the hanging yellow glacier lilies.

Nichols I thought, a sudden thought, maybe even an epiphany, loves nature like I love nature. These are my flowers. I know them. They help me make sense of the universe. Nichols’ characters love nature too. So what if they also love the super-natural? Give them a break. Loosen your rational sphincter a bit. You don’t have to believe them. Their believing is their business. Isn’t it interesting, after all, to find your way into minds like these — such varied minds and bodies all of whom the author so clearly loves.Come on man, you can straddle the air for a bit. Nobody’s asking you to walk on water.


About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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4 Responses to A Tight-Sphinctered Response to A Novel in Seven Stories

  1. chuck says:

    This makes me think of all my Mormon relatives (on my dad’s side) who generally were very much “Mormons” who lived their lives fully doing what they wanted. Too many alcoholic relatives to count, multiple marriages and children, feuding fussing and fighting,smoking, hunting, fishing and playing pinochle forever. Began the day with coffee first, then a beer at breakfast along with Trout and homemade biscuits, deer for dinner, and who knows what in between. Summer vacations the whole family was there. Serious drinking about sundown. Of course they all knew their bishops and ignored them. don’t know if these are what Julie Nichols describes or not, but they were real and bigger than life.There was room for devout Mormons, and every other kind of Mormon imaginable in my family.


    • Scott Abbott says:

      a major theme of the novel is that very room you mention (and it would be great to read more about the family you describe here), a room open and spacious and, of course troubled, because these are human beings.


  2. Scott Abbott says:

    posted for Michael Roloff, translator and analyst from Seattle:
    “This analyst suggests that the power of suggestion within transferance together with what is called the placebo effect can heal hysteria induced symptoms by relieving the source hysteria. That is then not that fraudulent except that of course hysteria itself is this weird over efflorence of sensations that becomes physiogically creative.”


  3. Pingback: This Month in Mormon Literature, June 2016 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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