Harrell, Jack. Vernal Promises. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2003.
Newly married Jacob Dennison throws the dairy aisle during the night shift in Vernal, Utah. He and his wife, Pam, are trying to straighten up and be good Mormons, but Jacob is haunted by his troubled past and he quickly veers off the straight and narrow and heads north to roughneck in Wyoming and run drill bits for his shady step-father. Away from Pam, who discovers she’s pregnant in Jacob’s absence, Jacob collapses into sin: drinking, smoking, drugs, and fornication, eventually coming under the sway of an ersatz magician and self-described prophet who preaches that true freedom and salvation only comes from denying Christ, and uses violence to underscore his points. Can Jacob’s bolo tie wearing Mormon bishop save Jacob from such powerful forces? Will Jacob ever become the Mormon dad that Pam hopes and prays for him to be–the true believing, faithful father that Jacob, himself, never had? Pulled between overwhelming temptation and the promise of redemption, Jacob engages in a struggle of St. Augustine-like proportions and almost loses everything, including himself, in the process.
Key quotes: “Jacob imagined spheres of truth floating in the desert air. There was a sphere of truth that said today was Saturday. There was a sphere that said God had created the air he was breathing. There was a sphere that said he could think about a scripture when he was stoned. Certain things were true no matter what else was true. He was stoned, and that was true” (76).
What Makes it Marginal: Copious and frank descriptions of drug use. Allusions to sexual situations. A temple married returned missionary pilfers damaged goods from the snack aisle at the store where Jacob works.
What Makes it Mormonal: This narrative follows a basic Christian redemption paradigm: the fallen protagonist eventually repents and makes his way back to the Church which is constructed as the locus of transcendent happiness, security, and salvation. Scenes of blessings using consecrated oil.
My Two Cents: One of the few examples of Mormon literary fiction in which a central female character plays out an experience of religious doubt and temptation, it’s also one of the few I’ve read that embraces what has become (at least in the 21st century United States) a certain kind of marginal Mormonism, one constructed around blue collar, non-college educated characters. (So far, this has been the only MML novel I’ve read that features scenes of physical violence.) For me, this novel is notable for its unflinching realism and the relatively extreme ways it pushes the envelope of sin in a Mormon context.