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"Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer
Under the Banner of Heaven is a true-crime book disguised as a meditation on the nature of religious belief -- deathporn without the guts to call itself deathporn. It manages to take a great, gross, funny story and make it dull in order to hide the truth about its appeal.
The crime in question was at once so brutal and so stupid that no honest author could treat it as anything but raw gore or low comedy. Ron and Dan Lafferty, two brothers from Utah, beat their sister-in-law unconscious, then slit her throat and that of her 15-month-old-daughter.
As you've probably guessed, Dan and Ron are Mormon fanatics, and God had personally told them, via a handwritten "revelation" dictated to Ron, that they should "take the lives" of mother and baby.
The "revelation" ordering the murders, one of many unnoticed comic gems recorded in this book, was a typical Mormon text, illiterate American English dotted with fake archaisms:
"Thus saith the lord unto My servants the Prophets [i.e. the Lafferty brothers]. It is My will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that My work might go forward. For they have truly become obstacles in My path and I will not allow My work to be stopped. First thy brother's wife Brenda and her baby, then Chloe Low, then Richard Stowe [two friends of Brenda's]. And it is my will that they be removed in rapid succession and that an example be made of them...."
God had apparently been careless in coordinating his intended victims' schedules; Brenda's friends happened not to be at home when the Lafferty brothers, their clothes still wet with their sister-in-law's and niece's blood, rang the bell at Chloe Low's and Richard Stowe's houses.
This God is a comic genius. It's not just the slapstick stuff; he comes up with some verbal gems as well. My favorite among God's bons mots is the Bush-phrase "for they have truly become obstacles in My path..." Too bad God doesn't have B-52s. He had to send the Laffertys to quiet the "obstacles" with nothing but a boning knife.
It's not just God who comes up with the great laff-lines. His servants, Dan and Ron, have some show-stoppers of their own. For instance, Dan testified that before slitting his niece's throat he introduced himself to her, saying suavely, "I'm not sure what this is all about, but apparently it's God's will that you leave this world; perhaps we can talk about it later."
It's that last line that gets me: "Perhaps we can talk about it later." Meaning, presumably, when the baby meets her murderer in whatever strip-mall Afterlife it is that Mormons imagine. There, Dan seems to imply, he and little Erica (whose throat he slit so efficiently that her head was left hanging on by a shred of skin and tendon) can have a good laugh over the whole silly misunderstanding, perhaps over one of those five-pound sundaes Mormons consume in lieu of alcohol.
There's no way any honest writer could tell the story of these bloody, drooling apes except as comedy or denunciation. But Jon Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven, is a successful American beigist, who knows that in his country any filth calling itself religion must be treated with exaggerated respect, swathed in a cottony, "balanced" prose which dulls the horror and denies the gross comedy.
It's not really Krakauer's fault. A far brighter man, Harold Bloom, set the pattern of patronizing dishonesty in recent Mormon studies a decade ago when he published The American Religion, a wordy paean to Joseph E. Smith, Jr.. Bloom patronized Mormonism as the quintessential American theology -- not that Bloom believed Smith's ludicrous account of finding those elusive "golden plates" in upstate New York, or that Bloom himself would dream of converting to Smith's corny creed. He implied, rather, that it was the perfect religion for those poor, lesser souls marooned in pelagic America, the wasteland between the coasts. Americana, the last refuge of the fading intellectual.
Krakauer should've been warned by the clear decline in all Bloom's books since The American Religion. That, however, would be expecting too much from Krakauer, a mediocre writer with one crucial skill: a great sense of what sort of stories the bookclubbers want to read. Krakauer sensed that the grumpy, ageing and envious American reader, stuck in a dull job in a dull suburb, wanted to read gory stories of braver folk who strove, soared...and died trying. Krakauer's big hit was Into Thin Air, a book about some very rich Americans who tried to climb Mount Everest and died. Like the Lafferty boys' adventures, this tale might have made a great comedy -- it's certainly got a built-in happy ending -- but Krakauer told the story as high (you should pardon the expression) tragedy.
Krakauer had already honed his sleazy knack for schaudenfreude in his previous bestseller, Into the Wild. The similarity in the books' titles reflects the use of a winning formula. Like Thin Air, Into the Wild is a story of a comfortable American who dares to live the dream...and dies horribly, this time by starving in an Alaskan winter, shocked to find that living off the land isn't as easy as in the movies.
In exploiting his disguised deathporn, Krakauer displayed a stunning lack of humor. He found nothing funny about billionaires freezing to death on Everest, slowly beginning to realize that all their self-actualization prattle cut no ice up there. And nothing struck him as funny about Into the Wild, either, despite the fact that the whole story was pure Looney Toons: Daffy Duck in "Cabin Fever"!
It's hard to escape the gloomy conclusion that Krakauer's dull earnestness suits his Waldenbooks audience right down to the ground. Anything sharper might make those envy-ridden office drones uncomfortably aware of why they like Krakauer's books so much.
Those readers who like their gore-gloating disguised will be glad to know that Krakauer maintains his flat, pious American voice even while telling the story of the Lafferty-a-minute boys' adventures.
It can't have been easy keeping a straight face through this story, even for a prat like Krakauer. These guys were seriously funny: five sturdy morons raised to believe their every cretinous mood-swing was a signal straight from God. The Laffertys even had that classic Mormon look, like the warriors in the illustrations to the Book of Mormon, who all resemble bearded white NFL offensive linemen moonlighting as extras in a Bible pic. Everybody loved the Lafferty boys, so nice and big and dumb.
Then Utah hit a recession. Dan, the smartest (well, "least stupid") of the brothers, started reading Mormon scripture for solace and realized that Mormonism had betrayed Joseph Smith's teachings by renouncing polygamy under pressure from the US government.
Smith, the horniest prophet since Muhammed, had published revelation after revelation in which God repeatedly commanded "my servant Joseph" to screw and then marry every woman he liked, whether she was already married to a lesser member of the sect or not.
It must've been painfully funny, when the cuckolded husbands got the news. Joseph: "God told me to screw your wife, brother." Mormon: "Uh...he did? Jeez...OK." (Naturally, Krakauer can't see anything humorous in polygamy. That would be insensitive, no doubt. God, what a drip he is!)
Polygamy may not have been popular with low-ranking Mormon cuckolds, but it went down a treat with Smith's fellow, horny "patriarchs," who did God's will with every woman they could catch. So fervently did these devout fornicators embrace polygamy that they resisted Federal pressure for decades, only backing down when the Feds threatened to seize every asset the Mormons had.
The Saints then changed their minds in typically comic, retarded fashion: the dotard who was serving as God's anointed in Salt Lake City suddenly had a "revelation" that lo, God says ix-nay on the igamy-bay.
Naturally, this caused a schism among the more lustful Mormon patriarchs, who took themselves off to even more remote parts of the American desert where they could screw as many of their 14-year-old nieces as God intended while cranking out illiterate manifestos, dictated by God, on the rectitude of incestuous pedophilia.
Dan Lafferty, wacky intellectual of the family, came across some of these, started a "study group" and converted his brother Ron to polygamy. Ron's wife fled to Florida, which pissed Ron off. Worse yet, his little brother Allen's loudmouthed wife Brenda started sitting in on the "study group" and citing Mormon scripture against Ron. And the bitch had actually been to college, so she made Ron look stupid in front of his bro's.
It wasn't long before God guided Ron's pen as it produced the fatwa against Brenda and her baby, carried out by Ron and Dan. The divine duo then fled, drifting around the West and ending up as casino bums, sponging joints and buffet coupons from drunks. They ended up in maximum security in Utah, where Ron had another revelation: God wanted him to kill Dan. Dan, ever the loyal believer, cooperated by putting his neck up to the bars so Ron could garrotte him with a towel.
But Dan starts breathing again, so Ron decides God doesn't want him dead after all. Ron then decides it's him, Ron, who needs to die--so he hangs himself, but revives after 15 minutes of brain death (!) and is now pursuing every appeal, convinced that what God actually wants is for his servant Ron to beat the rap at all costs.
Dan, meanwhile, is having a great time in another cellblock, growing his beard to Guinness Book of Records length and sharing a cell with another Mormon murderer, who got rich forging fake "revelations" by Joseph Smith, then started blowing people up in their cars all over Salt Lake City when the forgeries unraveled.
See what I mean? The gross, gory gags just go on and on, one funnier than the next. Yet this droning Tartuffe Krakauer can't even crack a smile telling a book of them.
So if you want good writing on Mormonism, read Fawn Brodie. If you just want a laugh, read the Book of Mormon.