Is this heaven? No, it’s Idaho

by Jenny Shank

Godforsaken Idaho: Stories
Shawn Vestal,
209 pages, softcover:
$15.95.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Shawn Vestal sets the stories in his focused yet far-reaching debut collection among regular Mormon folks who live in Idaho, touching on their lives in the past, the present and even the afterworld. Most of his characters have fallen away from their faith or are struggling with doubts, and Vestal, a columnist for Spokane's Spokesman-Review, skillfully mixes those serious subjects with dry humor.

In one story, the narrator meets his ex-wife in the afterlife. "Are the kids all right?" he asks her. "You got used to not knowing that," she replies. "Come on," the narrator says, "I've been dead." In another story, a man travels with his girlfriend to Rupert, Idaho, to visit her Mormon parents. There, they find "a hand-painted sign, done up with curlicues: FAMILIES ARE FOREVER! Which sounded like a threat."

Although Vestal can also craft compelling stories in the vein of straightforward realism -- "About as Fast as This Car Will Go," for example, follows a young man's descent into criminality under the guidance of his ex-con father -- his stories soar when he frees them from the normal cosmic rules.

In "The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death," there's not much for the deceased to do but relive their own lives. "Now that it's gone, your life is the only thing you have left. Ransack it, top to bottom. Find whatever you can in there, because it's all there is." This story starts out comical but becomes increasingly moving and melancholy as the narrator tries to reconnect with people from his past.

The harrowing "Opposition in All Things" proposes a different possibility for the afterlife. A crusty 1880s Idaho pioneer wakes from his death to find his spirit possessing Rulon Warren, a World War I veteran having difficulty meeting the expectations of his small Mormon town. Rulon's bored possessor urges him to more or less re-enact the pioneer's own life, ultimately behaving like a lunatic, with violent repercussions.

In whatever century these stories are set, they are united in their emphasis on family, and in their exploration of what we owe to and can expect from the people who share our blood, in this life and beyond.

© High Country News