Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Debut Proves Knudsen's One To Watch

(Image from Indiebound)

When 20-year-old Chris Kerry heads to the University of Utah to take advantage of a full-ride scholarship, he promises his aunt one thing: He will not become a Mormon. Although he no longer believes in the Baptist church to which she's devoted, he's not exactly shopping for a new religion either. No Mormons? No problem. He can do that much for the woman who's raised him since toddlerhood. Besides, she made him swear on a Bible and, no matter which church you go to, there's no arguing with that.

Despite a rough beginning, the young Texan soon settles into college life. He's got a steady job, a vermin-free apartment, and two Idaho coeds who make sure he doesn't starve to death. The work's nothing spectacular (it's a tuxedo rental shop, after all), but his eccentric co-workers keep him entertained; his bachelor pad houses exactly one piece of furniture, but it's enough; and the girls are not cover models, but sweet, thoughtful and fast becoming his best friends. There's only one problem: Angie and Kelly are some of the most Mormon Mormons he's ever met. Not that he's going to marry either one, or even thinks of them as anything more than pals, but he's spending a lot of time with them and there's something about their innate goodness that's undeniably attractive.

As things heat up at work (the store manager's embroiled in a tawdry affair, ownership's changing hands, and the machinery's acting up just in time for the busy holiday season), his friends confront their own problems (Is Kelly really ready to get married? Why is Angie being so frosty all the sudden?), Chris is forced to confront his past (an alcoholic-fueled adolescence), puzzling dreams about his parents (Why are they dressed all in white?), and the crisis of faith that's led him away from God (Baptists? Mormons? Who's right? Does he care?). Sorting it all out means deciding what he really wants for his future. Even Chris is surprised by how his dreams have changed. Can he figure out what - and who - he is in time to get the things he wants? Can he do it without breaking his promise to his aunt? Or is there something to this Mormon thing, after all?

The Rogue Shop, Michael Knudsen's newly-published debut, is pretty typical LDS fiction. Except when it's not. It's got a good, but troubled hero (no surprise there), a vow to stay away from religion (to keep our hero internally conflicted) and some goody-to-shoes Mormon kids (to inspire Chris with their wholesome happiness) - all elements readily found in this genre. Surprisingly (and pleasantly so), Knudsen gives us a few characters not typical in LDS books. Among his cast members are a man who refuses to step inside a meetinghouse, despite his strong testimony; another whose bitterness toward the church has led him to another religion completely; and yet another who's "active," yet flagrantly breaks the 7th commandment. These are the kinds of characters Deseret Book won't touch with a 10-foot pole, the kind I find most genuine and, therefore, most interesting. Forget the Mollies from Idaho, these are the types of people I want to read about. Knudsen's willingness to take a more honest (but always respectful) look at the Mormon people is the thing I like most about his book. That and the inside jokes. I'm still snickering over Travis' instructions to search trouser pockets for "anything of good report or praiseworthy" (42).

On the downside, Knudsen makes a whole lot of rookie mistakes in his first novel. First and foremost is the newbie's tendency to describe everything - every meal, every outfit, every thought, every word. The unnecessary detail weighs the story down so much that it becomes increasingly monotonous and dull. Same with the plot. There's so much extraneous information that the tale wanders here, there and everywhere, never really finding a clear direction. Secondly, Knudsen allows his minor characters to upstage his stars. While I knew and liked Travis, for instance, neither of the Idaho girls had enough personality to stand out. Even Chris lacks the depth to make him truly intriguing. From the moment we meet him, we know exactly where he's going, exactly what he'll do, and exactly how he'll end up. No surprises = dull. Thirdly, Knudsen saves all the real action for the final fourth of the book, but even that comes off as contrived and melodramatic. Fourthly ... well, I'll stop there. It's a first novel. 'Nough said. Still, none of these problems are unfixable - a good editor could have solved the majority of them by hacking at least 100 pages off the manuscript, forcing Knudsen to make every word count, streamline the plot, and breathe some life into his leading man/woman.

All in all, I liked The Rogue Shop more than a lot of LDS novels I've read. It offers a broader look at the Mormon people, proving that we're not mindless, flawless or even sinless. The book's predictable, sure. It's also sometimes cheesy, often preachy, and always overwritten. However, it's got an authenticity I admire as well as some flashes of real cleverness (I love the pay phone scene), proving that Knudsen's a writer to watch. The man's got potential written all over him.

(Readalikes: Um, I can't think of anything specific, really. Can you?)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for references to alcoholism, extramarital affairs and "hot-blooded American" men :)

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Rogue Shop from the author. Thanks!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your review! We are always excited when we get new authors who have potential. If anyone asks, we will always at least start reading a manuscript that we receive and we love new authors (Last year about 60% of our books were by new authors) as well as established ones.

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