Douglas H. Thayer
Wasatch: Mormon Stories and a Novella
Back in the long-ago 1970s, Douglas Thayer (along with Donald Marshall) got the contemporary short story up and running as a viable genre in Mormon literature that continues to thrive right up to the day after tomorrow — enough individual stories and collections, both in LDS-related venues and elsewhere, that it’s an effort to keep up with them. And now, with Wasatch, Thayer adds to the ongoing life of the contemporary Mormon short story eleven stories and a novella: nine recent stories (four previously published in Dialogue, one in Irreantum, one in Proving Contraries; three appearing for the first time) and two stories and the novella revised from his second collection Mr Wahlquist in Yellowstone ). A close look at Thayer’s revisions of “The Red-Tailed Hawk,” “The Gold Mine,” and the novella “Dolf” — sometimes large, sometimes small and delicate, always scrupulous — might yield useful lessons in fictional craft for any writer, or for any reader wanting to learn to read better; above all the lesson that a good writer never stops learning the craft, honing the sentences and paragraphs, re-thinking the words and syllables, re-living the characters’ experiences.
Settings (as implied in the title Wasatch), characters, and thematic concerns familiar to Thayer’s readers will be met again in this collection: Provo, the mountains and high deserts of the West; male protagonists, adolescent or relatively young adult; a masculine ambivalence toward house and home and wife and kids, together with an equivocal hankering for wildness, pursued in fishing or in camping out, or for the tribal life of an Apache or Crow; the adventures of a Mountain Man like Hugh Glass. Some stories here — “Carterville,” “The Locker Room,” “Fathers and Sons” — may feel like fictional extensions or satellites of Hooligan, Thayer’s widely enjoyed memoir of boyhood and adolescence in a Provo of the thirties and forties that could hardly have imagined its present state.
But there is a new Thayer here too; that is to say (not surprisingly) an older Thayer, who in the 1960s and 1970s might not have imagined himself writing stories of devastating trauma like “Wolves” (in which a seventeen-year-old Provo boy in 1940 rides the rails to Washington, D.C. and, on the way back, walks into the wrong hobo jungle in Nebraska), or like “The Locker Room” (in which another Provo boy, fifteen, an Eagle Scout, and innocent, takes a job sweeping up a machine shop where he works with a mean-mouthed and brutal foreman who also, incredibly and paradoxically, is a beloved husband); or stories of more somber maturity, like “Crow Basin,” or approaching old age, like “Ice Fishing.” This older Thayer, interestingly, seems to make his retrospective first-person narrators sound older, and sometimes wiser, even in the revised “Red-Tailed Hawk,” which regards its adolescent protagonist at what feels like a greater distance than in the earlier versions of the story.
The new/older Thayer is also funnier (as readers of Hooligan will know), though you might have to listen up close for the dry humor, except in the “magical-realist” story “Brother Melrose,” in which an old man gets up out of his grave and walks back into town for an evening’s visit with his daughter’s family, and shakes hands with neighbors and townspeople who line up at the door, requiring some crowd control, all because his grandson has missed him and prayed to see him again. There’s a lot more dialogue in this story, and a lot more body language (it would adapt as a good short play or film).
“Brother Melrose” is the second story in Wasatch, right after, or next to, the revised “Red-Tailed Hawk”: the two stories stand as pillars of the gateway to the collection, and, though sharply distinct in tone, one somber, the other hilarious, they lead us into a house of fictional rooms in which danger, damage, and death are taken seriously; a house of fiction in which we hear and know, outside, “the wind, the snow, and the cold.”
The Association for Mormon Letters is pleased to honor Douglas H. Thayer for Wasatch: Mormon Stories and a Novella.