Friday, September 28, 2007


I just finished Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood, a memoir by Douglas Thayer. This book was published by Zarahemla Books (my friend Chris Bigelow), which, along with Parables, represents my hope for the future of Mormon lit. I have some reservations about some of the things Zarahemla has produced, but I would unhesitatingly recommend Hooligans to anyone and everyone, and have already purchased copies to give as gifts (so don’t go out and buy it, Dad).

I chose this book because I am already familiar with Thayer’s work, particularly Under the Cottonwoods, a collection of short stories that truly changed my entire outlook about Mormon fiction the first time I read it. In fact, I have been re-reading it in preparation for reading Hooligans. Unfortunately, this led to my biggest disappointment with Hooligans, which is that the memoir ends as childhood ends. Thayer’s powerful short stories deal often with a young protagonist who has recently returned from a mission or military service. I was disappointed not to get any autobiographical commentary about that time period in Thayer’s life. In terms of Thayer’s fiction, there was one passage that rang familiar:
We shot only sparrows, never robins or other songbirds, which we knew was wrong somehow, although our parents did not forbid us. Perhaps it was an intuitive knowledge passed down from one generation of boys to another (92).
(The shooting of songbirds is an important foreshadowing in one of Thayer’s short stories, “The Rabbit Hunt.”) I wanted more insights into the life that led to the fiction, but the book says it is a memoir of “a Mormon boyhood,” so I can’t fault it for being just that.

The organization of the book is rather loose, with each chapter being a narrative of different aspects of growing up in Provo during World War II. Reading each chapter is like listening to grandpa reminisce for an hour or so—just like it, in fact, with a conversational voice that is highly readable. And, just like listening to grandpa, there is a little bit of duplication; once or twice I came across comments or anecdotes that had already been mentioned earlier. I’m not a big fan of the chapter titles, which are simply a list of topics that appear in each chapter. Once, at least, a topic is mentioned in a title that was not discussed in the chapter (Chapter One lists “Babylon,” which is covered in Chapter Two).

The only grammatical mistake I find in the entire book is in the very first sentence. (“. . . a splendid place to grow up for my friends and I.” Yikes!) So if that kind of thing bugs you, know that it’s the only one and the rest is smooth sailing. There are only a couple of typos throughout the book.

OK, now that the negative stuff is out of the way, I have to say that this book is absolutely a delight to read. Besides the nostalgia that it must carry for those who remember childhoods like Thayer’s, the sheer joy of the book is found in its observations through the eyes of an innocent child. Here are some examples:
We knew that the Heber Creeper whistle woke up sleeping ward members at five in the morning, which, we were told, was the reason there were so many kids in the Sixth Ward, but we didn’t understand that reasoning (9).

The side of Webster’s grocery store had a big painted sign of a camel, and a package of Camel Cigarettes, and the sign said [“]I’D WALK A MILE FOR A CAMEL.” In my younger days, I thought it meant they’d give you a real camel if you’d walk a mile, which I thought very generous, although I didn’t know what I’d do with an animal like that if I had one (21-22).
The naivety applies to life in general and religion in particular:
When you were twelve, you were ordained a deacon, which meant you could pass the sacrament and collect fast offerings to help the ppor, and you were entitled to the ministering of angels. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I kept my eyes peeled (96).

But most delightful is the combination of a child’s view of religion mixed with the other aspects of childhood, such as hunting and fishing:

I knew that Jesus liked fishermen and that he knew where the best fishing was and told fisherm[e]n where to throw their nets, which made me like him. I became very concerned about catching a lot of fish, which I knew took faith and even prayer, just like gaining strength to overcome your sins (19).

The long curl of [fly] tape covered with stuck dead black flies was a visual daily warning of a kind, but you were never sure of what, probably something to do with sin. Sin, as we boys well knew, was a very sticky proposition and was best avoided, depending of course on how much fun was involved (26).

The biggest strength of the book is that although all of the reminiscences are firmly grounded in sensory details, I can still pick up the overarching feelings of what it’s like to be a child, new to the world and its philosophies. Thayer accurately and movingly conveys both the joys of childhood (swimming at night with water and moonlight sliding over your skin, sitting by the coal stove in winter) and it’s perplexities and lonelinesses. Especially moving to me is the aching of this small boy for a father who would take him hunting. Thayer’s genius is in never saying, “I was sad about that,” but we feel it through his memories of watching the other boys go off with their fathers.

Its honesty and beauty make this book a prize, and I’m really happy for Chris in being able to pick it up. If he can continue to publish such high-quality, universally appealing books, I think he’ll see financial success (and be able to continue publishing some of his more—what was the word, Chris? edgy?—books with the money it might bring in). I hope Chris is able to invest in some advertising for this one, because Hooligan is the perfect gift book: not empty but not offensive.

1 comment:

Jennifer B. said...

Something to add to my Christmas list. Thanks for the review!