A Tight-Sphinctered Response to A Novel in Seven Stories

Posted on June 22, 2016 by Scott Abbott

My colleague Julie Nichols’ new book Pigs When They Straddle the Air (Zarahemla Books, 2016) kept disturbing my sleep last night. The interlocking stories have great characters, many of whom are Mormons: lesbian Mormons, straight Mormons, polygamous Mormons, energy directing Mormons, criminal Mormons, herbalist Mormons, business Mormons, lapsed Mormons, priesthood wielding Mormons, feminist Mormons, and so on. Nichols likes these characters one and almost all. She weaves their stories into an intimate textile, a text whose sentences are the work of a careful and brilliant writer; she loves language as much as she loves the people of her stories. The warm-hearted and cantankerous  communities of her characters are mirrored by her rich and well crafted paragraphs.

But that wasn’t what kept waking me up. It was the healers. New-age healers, no less than Mormon priesthood healers, are, in my mind, wishful and hopeful and mistaken and sometimes outright frauds. A “master healer” from California dominates the book’s final story, the one I read before falling asleep. The healer heals an autistic boy. Horse shit, I muttered. The healer heals a comatose victim of a head wound (or perhaps it was the priesthood healers who did the healing, or was it the child performing “child reflexology” who did the healing?). Bull shit, I said. And so on.

I had been warned. Karin Anderson wrote in a blurb that the book made her willing and even delighted “to suspend my own (painful) cynicism and simply follow the mystical premises of the story.” I obviously wasn’t quite so willing to suspend my own (painstaking) cynicism.

So I woke again and again wondering what to think about a book that elicited responses from me like “chicken shit.” I wouldn’t have cared about any of this if I didn’t like the book, if I didn’t like the characters, if I didn’t find the book challenging, if it weren’t meaningful to me.

One answer came this morning when I reread a paragraph following the child reflexology healing/California healer healing/priesthood holder healing:

In every season follow nature skyward: snowshoe first at the edges of snowmelt in late March to catch the pale upturning springbeauties and woodlandstars and the hanging yellow glacier lilies.

Nichols I thought, a sudden thought, maybe even an epiphany, loves nature like I love nature. These are my flowers. I know them. They help me make sense of the universe. Nichols’ characters love nature too. So what if they also love the super-natural? Give them a break. Loosen your rational sphincter a bit. You don’t have to believe them. Their believing is their business. Isn’t it interesting, after all, to find your way into minds like these — such varied minds and bodies all of whom the author so clearly loves.Come on man, you can straddle the air for a bit. Nobody’s asking you to walk on water.

Pigs When They Straddle the Air
By Julie J. Nichols