The Book of Mormon: A Novel

How hard is it for Elders to go door to door to try to convert people? Alex Beam says a new novel shows you.

Dominic Bracco II/The Washington Post via Getty

You see them around your neighborhood, and you see them in countries all over the world: the Mormon missionaries, mostly men dressed in black suits, white shirts, and narrow dark ties, with a shoulder bag full of Scripture—the Bible and the Book of Mormon—slung across their chest. Each man sports that distinctive, horizontal name tag: “Elder Peck,” “Elder Christiansen,” and so on.

An elder is a young male Mormon who has entered the Melchizedek priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), usually around age 18. (Melchizedek was an Old Testament king who also appears in the Book of Mormon.) Elders is the name of ex-Mormon Ryan McIlvain’s just-published novel, about a mission journey gone terribly wrong.

It’s traditional for the stripling elders to serve two-year missions, often overseas, between high school and college. Mitt Romney notably spent 30 months in Catholic France after his freshman year in college, knocking on doors, yoked to his mission companion, allowed to call home only on Christmas and Mother’s Day. I once heard someone ridicule Romney for converting only two Frenchmen. The real miracle is that he converted any at all. McIlvain’s novel takes place in the equally Catholic, fictional city of Carinha, Brazil, where his ill-starred missionaries—Seth McLeod from Boston and Cristiano Passos from Recife—almost convince one beautiful “investigator,” or prospect, to accept baptism.

Something happens on the way to the baptismal font … You’ll have to read the book.

I’ve never read a book or article, fiction or nonfiction, that explains what’s going through those clean-cut elders’ minds as they shuffle dutifully from rejection to rejection, always in an unfamiliar environment. “Tracting,” the LDS term for canvassing for converts, seems like utter hell. On the rare occasion that McLeod and Passos get a foot in the door, they inevitably discover that a gentile, i.e. non-Mormon, evangelist has picked up their scent and poisoned the minds of any Brazilians who might be turning their gaze toward Salt Lake City. At one home, a Pentecostal neighbor drops off a pamphlet revealing that the Mormon founding prophet Joseph Smith had more than 20 wives. (More than 40 would be more like it.) “You’ve been teaching how Joseph Smith … was the vessel for restoring the pure church of Christ,” the comely investigator says, “How could he do that if he himself was impure?”

That’s a good question and one that bedevils McLeod, who is having problems with his “testimony.” He’s pretty sure he doesn’t believe that “Joseph Smith was a true prophet and the LDS is the one true church,” as Mormons often recite on Sundays. To complicate matters, his father is a devout Mormon bishop in Boston, who fervently hopes that his son’s mission will straighten him out. Seth is indeed crooked timber. He blurts out to his Latter-day Saint girlfriend that “we should be fucking right now!” She reports him to his bishop/father, who separately catches his son in the woods with a stack of Penthouse magazines.

Worse still, McLeod owns a forbidden book called A Dictionary of Mormon Arcana, a collection of inconvenient and heretical facts about Mormonism. McLeod’s dictionary reveals that Mormon prophet Brigham Young, among others, taught that Jesus Christ was sexually active. Passos, McLeod’s faithful Mormon companion, literally does not want to hear this, so he proposes a swap: he will burn his secret stash of pornography if McLeod agrees to toss his apostate dictionary into the fire, too.

McIlvain lays bare the curious culture of these uniquely unworldly young men. Missionaries can’t read the papers, watch television, or listen to the radio, so McLeod & Co. are blissfully unaware that Brazil is winning the Latin American soccer tournament—the only thing anyone in Carinha really cares about—or that the United States is invading Iraq, which spikes anti-Americanism among the locals. Their tone-deaf American mission president schedules a church service to coincide with the soccer finals, and wonders why no one shows up.

All of the boys are virgins. One of McLeod’s American colleagues from Salt Lake City dreams of blow jobs and cunnilingus after he marries his Brigham Young University sweetheart, but asks out loud: “Does the church keep tabs on your sex life after you’re married? To wit: can you go down on your wife?”

The young men aren’t sure, although another missionary warns, “Keep it Bible, dude.” Swear words are verboten, of course. Missionaries can use only vocabulary found in Holy Writ. The only word McLeod knows for “prostitute” is “harlot.”

Even without pornography, the young men continue their sexual trespasses, prompting the mission president to hand McLeod a laminated yellow card, entitled “The Guide to Self Control.” (“1. Never touch the intimate parts of your body except during normal toilet processes. Avoid being alone as much as possible.”)

“Dude, this is a classic of Mormon literature!” one of McLeod’s friends exults. “Anybody who’s really going to town gets this card.”

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I’d call Elders a minor classic in Mormon letters, which is akin to darning it (keepin’ it Bible!) with faint praise. But I mean it as real praise. Excellent, Mormon-themed novels are few and far between. This is one of them.