Book review: Magical realism refreshes Western fiction in 'The Scholar of Moab'
"THE SCHOLAR OF MOAB," by Steven L. Peck, Torrey House Press, $15.95, 300 pages (f)
Steven L. Peck's "The Scholar of Moab" is darkly humorous and literary. A man in the 1990s finds a journal, written by Moab, Utah, town hero Hyrum, and sets off to piece together the events leading to Hyrum's death. This man combines selections from the journal with correspondence of people who knew the man. Hyrum's writing and the other selections combine in an adventerous story with subtle cultural commentary.
In his quest to become a scholar, Hyrum unwittingly makes the residents of his Moab hometown suspicious that Gadianton robbers from the Book of Mormon have returned. A little before these events, Hyrum befriends a poet and two conjoined, highly educated cowboys.
The different voices of the varied cast are distinct and caricatured. Despite the humorous undertones, the elements of magical realism leave a feeling in the reader of wonder and suspicion at the possibilities of everyday life.
Magical realism is a genre that features strange coincidences, supernatural events and creatures like talking cats but set in the "real" world. The unusual characters — conjoined twins — and strange occurrences — a baby may have been abducted by aliens — of Peck's book make it typical of the genre. "The Scholar of Moab" is similar to a Kurt Vonnegut novel, including the focus on religious meaning for multiple characters with differing religious backgrounds.
Peck, an evolutionary ecologist at Brigham Young University where he teaches the philosophy of biology, manages to poke fun at LDS culture without making it the focus of the novel. The novel's portrayal of faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Moab is a bit two-dimensional, but more by comic necessity than malice. A few swear words and large words make the book most appropriate for adults and older teens.
"The Scholar of Moab" is a delightful, philosophical read that many will have a high probability of liking. Fans of magical realism and Western settings would also find much to their liking. For a Utah resident, there is something special about reading novels that take place in the state. Luckily, this novel, though intimately tied to its setting, has more to offer than a familiar place: It treats familiar conflicts with humor and poignant suffering.
Rachel Helps is a grad school dropout with a passion for old books and video gaming and a bachelor's in psychology. See thepretentiousgamer.blogspot.com for more of her gaming articles.