In “The First Several Hundred Years After My Death,” the first story in Shawn Vestal’s acclaimed debut collection, “Godforsaken Idaho,” the narrator introduces the reader to heaven. It’s a place where families reunite after death. The thing is, the age you were when you died becomes your age forever, which tends to change family dynamics. As the author rides the belief that “families are forever” to its literal conclusion the fabric of religious belief begins to unravel. (Read an excerpt below.)The stories in “Godforsaken Idaho” (Little A/New Harvest, 209 pgs., $15.95) revolve around the contradictions and restrictions of faith and religion and the thin lines between damnation and exaltation. Vestal was born and raised in Gooding, Idaho, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While he left the church as a young man, its teachings, and the rural Idaho landscape, left an indelible mark on his psyche. They form the backbone for “Godforsaken Idaho,” which made Oprah’s 2013 Summer Reading List after its publication last spring. The Los Angeles Times Review of Books called it, “weirdly and wildly funny, a blistering set from a writer with a far-reaching range.”
Among the other stories are “Opposition in All Things,” whose formerly dead narrator wakes up inside Rulon Warren, the Mormon son of a niece he barely knew. The haunted Warren is recently returned to Idaho from World War I. Not sure of his purpose, the imperfect narrator assumes the role of guiding the disturbed veteran.
In “Winter Elders,” missionaries relentlessly pursue a man who has left the fold. “Gulls” features a woman whose desire to choose coincides with a plague of insects. “Diviner” is a portrait of a young Joseph Smith who, before he founded a major world religion, was hired to find buried treasure.
Vestal studied English at the University of Idaho and works as a reporter for The Spokesman-Review. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Eastern Washington University. His short stories have appeared in “McSweeney’s,” “Best American Fantasy” and elsewhere.
From the story “The First Several Hundred Years After My Death” in the book “Godforsaken Idaho”
I made friends with a guy from the Middle Ages. He died old for his day: forty-three. He loves to hear about televisions and microwave ovens. Tells the damnedest stories about the plague years, about the exhilaration of every day. When things got depressing, he and his friends would go out looking for Jews or lepers and beat them with clubs.
“The Black Death,” he said, with an air of pride. “You knew you were alive. You knew the value of a day.”
He slurped from his spoon, and his smile fell. “When my daughter got it, that was the worst. I’d have rather had it myself.”
He looked around for eavesdroppers. We were sitting at the metal cafeteria tables. I was eating a corn dog from the Ada County Fair, 1976. He was eating his wife’s mutton stew, with salt and bread, from the winter of 1335.
He held his spoon poised between bowl and mouth. One cube of flabby mutton. He whispered, “I’d have rather my wife had it. I would have given it to her if I could’ve.”
I remembered how worried we’d been when Tyler had the flu as a baby. The chemical purity of the hospital.
The man’s eyes turned bright. “Tell me again about your toilet,” he said. “You would sit there and read magazines.”