Several years ago, while in Utah to give a speech, novelist Wallace Stegner set aside an afternoon for interviews.
His most memorable comments were about Mormon literature."My feeling is the best Mormon literature will be written by someone who was a member in full fellowship, left the church, then decided to give it all a second look," he said.
Stegner doesn't bill himself as a prophet, but the remark comes hauntingly close to describing the life, times and talent of Montana writer Walter Kirn.
Kirn's first collection of short stories ("My Hard Bargain," Knopf, $18.95) features several stories about Mormons. And the book's been playing to rave reviews across America. Novelist Tom McGuane calls the writing "big-hearted, readable, original." Rick Bass sighs, "Thank goodness for Walter Kirn!"
When Esquire magazine ran a couple of Kirn's stories, the response was nearly unanimous. America had produced another writer whose voice and perspective could make him an indispensable addition to American letters.
And Kirn himself?
He seems rather unaffected by it all, living a simple day-to-day life in his Montana home. He reads, writes, rewrites, rereads, and at times gives an interview. He spoke with the Deseret News about his budding career.
"When I first began to write I asked myself, `What is it I have to tell that no one else is telling?' That's when I made a conscious decision to take religion - especially Mormonism - seriously. My family was converted when we lived in Phoenix - back in 1976. And it was the most fascinating time of my life. As I got older and began reading more scholarly works, I could see that my Mormon heritage was much more complicated - and more confusing - than I'd been told. But it was also much richer. I've never understood how writers can strike things, like religion, from their past. In my case, I find myself slowly returning to have another look at those experiences."
One of the most refreshing things in Kirn's work is the total lack of guile. Yet Kirn is no shrinking violet. His dry-eyed look at people trying - often unsuccessfully - to control their passions is very moving and honest. A couple of stories here, such as "Planetarium" are not for the faint of heart. They are warts-and-all realism.
Still, sarcasm and irony never appear. In "Whole Other Bodies," for instance, we meet a young Minnesota family (Kirn's own, embellished for fiction) converting to Mormonism. As the last page nears, the reader sets himself for the "hook" - either a faith-promoting message or a wry, ironic twist.
He gets neither. What he gets is this:One by one, we went under the water. First my father, my tall father, clean and pale as he held his breath and let himself fall backwards, braced against the missionary's arm. For a time his hair spread out on the water, then it disappeared, and that was the moment when God took him entirely. It happened to us all that day."I suppose I'm an amateur Mormon historian," Kirn says. "I make little mistakes here and there, I'm afraid. Under each new president, the church seems to change so much.
"But one thing that doesn't change, that's always struck me, is the huge, individualist streak found in the members of the church. They're not all blind followers the way people outside the church are led to believe."
Needless to say, Kirn himself is hardly the "blind follower." As a boy in Minnesota he wrote pulp fiction for spy magazines. But he soon wearied of the formulas. To shake things up, he went to Montana to do a feature on The Church Universal. He liked the raw, big-boned feel of the state and soon returned to live in Livingston. Once there, one of his first moves was to take a risk and leave a short story manuscript in the mailbox of Thomas McGuane.
McGuane loved it.
As did others. It's been nothing but an upward spiral for Kirn since. His focus on his formative years and his blunt, plain-spoken American voice make him one of those odd-men-out in American literature: a writer who is avant-garde because he writes traditional fiction in a traditional way. In fact, just as poet Nicanor Parra wrote "anti-poems" to rebel against the self-conscious sophistication of Modernism, Kirn seems to write "anti-stories."
"It's a bit passe to talk about influences," he says. "But, yes, Salinger had quite an effect on me. For me, I write about boyhood because that's when you really know more than you think you know, but go around pretending to know things you don't. It's the wisest and most foolish time of our lives."
In his fiction, however, Kirn gives readers very little folly. The pages seem to brim with wisdom and promise.