A Danger to God Himself is a book so perfectly up my alley that it contains a number of similarities with one of my own—Their Works Shall Be in the Dark. In his debut novel, John Draper explores a series of extraordinary events within a Mormon community, including the misadventures of a nomadic family of eccentrics, seemingly divine visions, a conniving ex-Bishop, and even an offshoot religion. The tale gets pretty real when a missionary’s prophetic revelations turn out to be nothing more than a coincidental mental illness.
The Concept: A
Easily summarized as “a book about a Mormon kid who goes crazy as a missionary,” A Danger to God Himself is immediately arresting. But the concept is better than just that quick tagline.
The setting is wisely chosen and vividly rendered. Draper opted to plant his characters in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, which enhances the small-community feel to their interactions. But more importantly, the story takes place in 1979—roughly a year after mainstream Mormonism finally reversed a policy that had barred black men from being admitted into the priesthood. This is of particular significance to the plot and to the characters, as Demetrius Bloodworth is a black man recently named as Bishop and Algernon Briskey is the racist former bishop he replaced.
The central story, however, regards Jared Baserman, a witty young missionary whose psychotic episodes progress from minor impressions into full-blown visions of the devil. And, honestly, that was enough to hook me even before I became wrapped up in the rich setting.
The Execution: C+
John Draper has clearly done his research. I’m no expert on mental illness, but his depiction of it and the technical jargon he occasionally throws around is enough to convince me. As far as the Mormon stuff is concerned, though, it’s surprisingly accurate. It’s my understanding that Draper doesn’t have a Mormon background, but began attending a Mormon ward while working on the book. His rendering of LDS culture is hilariously spot-on at times and soberingly real at others. I have a few minor quibbles about it, but I’m not entirely sure that the “errors” I think I’ve found can’t be explained away by the fact that the Mormonism he’s depicting is from thirty-five years ago.
There are many points at which this book feels long. There are many points at which this book feels like it’s a breeze. I went back and forth between periods of casual disinterest to periods of ravenous focus with such frequency that I think I may have some kind of literary whiplash. The pacing, is hands-down, the book’s biggest weakness. The first scenes adeptly capture the reader’s attention, but shortly after that, we’re treated to a lengthy flashback full of insanely detailed character histories. This is in some ways a good thing, as the characters are full and fun and lifelike. But the downside is that the jarring nature of the narrative is established early on. Readers are thrown from character backgrounds to scenes of energetic public spectacles to laid-back musings on the nature of God without much in the way of smooth transitions. Near the end of the book, it becomes commonplace for two conversations that took place months apart to appear on the same page between a quick summary of the passage of time.
The Writer’s Voice: B
Draper is a capable writer with a solid command of the language. The narrator, Kenny Feller, has a habit of selecting a “word of the day” to continue expanding his vocabulary, which is a nice touch that gives Draper a good excuse to use a few less common terms. Even some words not identified as Kenny’s daily lessons are pretty esoteric, and I broadened my own lexicon a bit while reading (although not quite as much as when I read The Miseries of Mister Sparrows).
The humor throughout the novel often helps inject adrenaline into less exciting sections. Jared Baserman has a quick mind and a dry wit, which seems to rub off on Kenny a little bit too. Though the book is hardly a comedy, there were several lines that made me laugh out loud (a phrase I despise using ever since the acronym LOL’s incontrovertible penetration into the English vernacular). But the humor mixes well with the ruminations on divinity and blends smoothly into the bizarre and often tragic subject matter.
It’s also worth noting that, for a self-published debut novel, A Danger to God Himself contains an impressively low number of typographical errors and grammatical foibles.
The X-Factor: B+
This book is peppered with especially endearing colors. The characters are varied and interesting, from Nephi’s quiet loyalty to the spitfire Jerusha’s conversion to Rastafarianism, to President Watson’s desperate indignation and President Dewey’s morally inscrutable philosophies. There’s a lot of cleverness, a lot of food for thought, and a lot of replay value…so to speak.
I do have a handful of complaints, but most of them aren’t worth mentioning here because they tend to originate from my own experience with Mormonism. These issues won’t stop 99.8% of the world from enjoying the book.
The Official Declaration: B+
A Danger to God Himself is stuffed to the gills with flavor. Draper highlights many of the doctrinal and cultural shortcomings of the LDS church while depicting many of his Mormon characters as decent people and earnest truth-seekers, which is a commendable balance. It doesn’t stay purely in the realm of Mormonism the entire time, and may be of interest to anyone curious about the Latter-day Saint movement, Christianity, or religion in general. The ending leaves quite an impact as well and I actually reread the first few pages as soon as I finished.
I realize that this is only the second review I’ve posted this year, but I won’t be surprised if A Danger to God Himself ends up one of my favorite reads of 2016.