For an essayist and fishing enthusiast, popular U of U writing professor Maximilian Werner’s didn’t do badly with Crooked Creek, his first novel. Nominated for the Utah Book Award, it went up against In This Light, a collection of short stories by Melanie Rae Thon, his colleague at the U and one of Utah’s more distinguished living authors. That two such worthy books came along in time to compete with each other speaks to the strength of the local writing community at a time when literature itself is said to be in crisis. Placing Werner’s secular worldview beside Thon’s more spiritual vision also brought his view of life into high relief. It’s no secret that Utah has been a place of insiders and outsiders since its beginnings a century and a half ago, but it’ never been entirely clear who fits in which group. If Crooked Creek shows a diverse immigrant population that began winnowing itself from the beginning, Gravity Hill, Werner’s new memoir, reveals that the fault line cuts deeper, while running in more and different directions, than the simplistic, popular image would have us believe.
To chart so many fractures requires a variety of maps, or in this case, voices. Werner opens, closes, and paces Gravity Hill in the present, when he is a husband, father, and as fully enrolled in those tasks as any conventional family advocate. In those moments, his musings are literate and philosophical: ‘The sound of parenthood is the sigh,’ he reflects while attending a sleepless baby. But the timeline is complex, drawn by the gravity of memory to return in seemingly desultory fashion to those moments that, if not exactly traumatic, are troubling: moments he would as soon forget, but cannot. The voice shifts with the narrator’s age, adopting a conversational tone appropriate to a teenager. At times demotic, soaring, elegiac, street, the shift can be disorienting, as the audible surface of this elegant man-of-letters in his forties suddenly dissolves and the 16-year-old horny, thirsty boy steps forward to continue his story, frequently needing to prove himself by cursing in a rough, but finally harmless way. Rude speech is accompanied by direct description of carnal acts, reproof to anyone who thinks vague, allusive writing is somehow ‘poetic’ when, in reality, it is only vague and allusive.
Any man who writes a memoir must have in mind his background and education, how and perhaps why he came to some place in time. Maximilian Werner’s Gravity Hill offers such a record, tuned to the precise details of adolescence in Utah, though complete with excursions to distant places that variegate his experience. The book is also, in keeping with recent trends in memoir, a potentially universal, possibly inspirational tale of one young man’s descent into self-medication and substance abuse, followed by, if not the secret of his recovery, at least the facts of his survival. But there is something larger here: something that makes this book indispensable for anyone in Utah who is not LDS, and equally so for anyone who is. Gravity Hill may well be the first book to recollect in tranquility, without an agenda, the ongoing encounter between two peoples who still refer to each other by incidentally disparaging names: Mormons and Gentiles. Werner tells of living alongside a powerful yet defensive group of people he views neither as angels nor demons, but mostly as his neighbors. This may be the first time two groups who demonize each other in print and speech, though mildly by world standards, will see depicted how they behave together in actual practice.
But first, Max Werner is a boy from a broken home, one of two sons and a daughter being raised by their mother in the suburban towns of Salt Lake, loosely scattered around a basin closed in by rugged mountains and harsh deserts, where secrets are hard to keep and the great western ethic, the right to be left alone, long ago succumbed to the fundamentalist practice of minding one another’s business. Culture, as he discovers when he encounters ways different from his own, doesn’t change people, nor really form them. What culture does is preserve the enduring—if not just intractable—values of a group. What recent immigrants to Utah like Werner find themselves facing is not a community created by revelation. In fact, as he points out, the Saints’ command of theology looks shaky to non-believers, and the LDS Church plays no direct part in Gravity Hill. What young Werner finds instead is a strongly bonded, distinctively rural culture that is conservative in the old-fashioned sense: like common folk the world over, Latter Day Saints are devoted to maintaining the norms and mores that have preserved them far longer than the relatively brief history of their church. Having survived the enclosures of their hereditary lands, migration into the industrial revolution, and captivation in the urban slums of Europe, these pilgrims came to Zion in a desperate gamble to recover their own lost paradise. The last thing they wanted was to share it with the kind of losers they had barely escaped becoming themselves.
Young Max arrives on the scene with troubles of his own. His original family was not only broken, but the shards were twisted in ways that makes them difficult to see clearly. What connected his parents remains a mystery: his early memories find them already estranged, and most of his connection with his father occurs while shuttling back and forth between his mother’s domain in Utah and his father’s haunts in New York. Visiting his father brings him to Fire Island, revealed in some of the book’s most evocative and compelling passages: scenes too brief to satisfy the curious, but too suggestive for more cautious readers. Returning to his high school years in Salt Lake, he reveals himself to have been, like so many talented but poorly-directed youth, an indifferent student. The contrast between him and the future missionaries he encounter daily is at its strongest here: Werner and his friends fecklessly adrift, the young saints certain and self-confident. This is surely not where Gravity Hill will make trouble between Werner and his neighbors. What may cause offense is his insistence that adolescence, though a moveable feast, is none the less inescapable: that those assured young men and women on their way to elaborate weddings and large families are, beneath a cosmetic projection, just as much its creatures as are his friends. The desperate desire of returning missionaries to get married, an endlessly celebrated source of ribald humor in their community, may be disguised, but is no different in his eyes from the ceaseless cruising for sexual opportunities among their unchurched peers. Consider Faux, caught in conflict between her church and her peers, including an eager suitor Max considers hopeless:
Faux had reassessed and reasserted her commitment to all things Mormon. All her life she had been a tough crack to nut, and by God she would be so again. Thus there would be no more spreading of legs and she would surround herself with her own kind: the beautiful and visibly uncomplicated Mormon boys and girls. Of course Sport was not privy to any of this knowledge, and even if he were it would not have stopped him because it has never stopped anyone. He was a bee at work in the cherry blossoms.
If sexuality is the engine that drives Werner’s peers no matter their social standing, cars offer them a hazardous, demonstrably life-threatening independence. What cars don’t provide is that staple of earlier generations, the mobile bedroom. Among his friends, a room is never that hard to borrow. The draw for the rootless is Gravity Hill, a favorite spot to take a date or just to hang out. Here, in their four-wheel parlors, beneath the luminous State Capitol, yet on the edge of wilderness, they drink and talk—or more often, drink and sit silent—connect and separate again, and try to create the community that failed them in their home lives. The title refers to a section of road where an optical illusion makes a coasting car seem to accelerate uphill. Here Gravity Hill becomes a sublime metaphor, one that Werner sets up but does not belabor, for the way young adult men and women appear to be accelerating as they reach for marriage, families of their own, careers, and an apotheosis of accomplishment. The truth, of course, visible from some topographically objective vantage point, is that their primes are already past. Most, in reality, are actually rolling down into depths where they will be caught as if by gravity, trapped for the duration of life. Nor is there any reason to believe that, despite the superficial differences, the fate of the faithful will ultimately be any different.
When the warmish wind died we would look up again and gaze to the south, as if we expected to see something other than the black shapes of the rising mountains. We could see Bay and Brody silhouetted against the northern sky and their bodies were stiff and serious. Bay’s arms were folded. I think everyone knew they wouldn’t last. It wasn’t just them, though. We all had potential, but we lost most of it to the drugs and booze and to the resulting mistakes, which made me feel like I was always in the hole. Add that to the normal difficulty of interacting with other humans, and how any of us got and stayed together with anyone could be counted as one of life’s mysteries.
And yet some of them, as Maximilian Werner proves here, will come together and make it work. The flip side of young Werner’s insistence that his LDS classmates are just as addled by the onset of sex and mature society is his tacit admission that they had the right answer all along: sex within a union isn’t just necessary for successful reproduction; it provides the best template for living as well. Utah confounds outsiders, who don’t expect to find pre-Civil War values still practiced by politicians, financiers, civic leaders, intellectuals, teachers, editors, publishers, and writers of serious literature. But surely some of them will be just as bewildered to find the lost, intoxicated teen-ager they wrote off now representing them in a bid for earthly eternity. Gravity Hill argues no one has a patent on the truth, not insiders any more than the excluded, and nothing is what it looks like on TV. Werner promises no external help. He sees the lie that no one is ever tested beyond endurance for what it is. If the view is bleak, it’s one well-rooted in observable, and closely-observed, matters of fact.