Book Review: Coke Newell, On the Road to Heaven.
Reviewed for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.
I judge an autobiographical novel on two things: how vividly the author recreates the life it seeks to describe, and how much insight and understanding the author generates about the worlds he or she moves through.
Coke Newell’s autobiographical novel is good at vividly presenting a journey from a passionate, free-living, tree-hugging, pot-smoking youth in the Colorado mountains where he grew up in the 1970s, to a deeply committed and successful missionary for the Mormon Church in Columbia. But it is much less successful at exploring the significance of this improbable journey.
Ultimately, the book doesn’t amount to much more than the plotline sketched above. It moves along smoothly through a colorful and well-paced narrative, and the book’s narrator, Kit West, is likeable and intriguing enough – at least in theory. But I never felt that West’s motivations were very clear or convincing.
The turning point of the novel is, of course, West’s conversion to the Mormon faith as the culmination of a pot-hazed quest for TRUTH. But I’m hard pressed to understand why West settles on Mormonism out of the welter of other philosophies he is immersed in, other than its vague resonance with his romanticized view of Native American beliefs. After his conversion, West quickly demonstrates the strength of his faith and is chosen to be a missionary to Columbia where he is highly successful at winning converts. But while West’s earnest discipline and drive as a missionary is compelling (it certainly gives you an understanding of why the Mormon church is growing so rapidly), this part of the novel is remarkable for how little interest West takes in understanding what social and political circumstances are behind the poverty of so many of the Columbians he sees, and why the overwhelming majority of them are so hostile to the United States and what they see as the imperialistic encroachment of evangelical religions like Mormonism.
To be fair, though it has been a long time since I’ve read it, I recall having many of the same issues with Newell’s literary model for the book, Jack Kerouac’s iconic On the Road – a book that struck me as remarkable for both its stunning narrative immediacy and its superficiality. Newell’s desire to do homage to his literary hero I think gets in the way of his telling a satisfying story. But if you are a fan of On the Road you may enjoy seeing its influence on a convert to one of the most conservative religions in America today. Or if you are a Mormon, you may enjoy seeing the story of conversion to the faith done up Beatnik style.
But I was hoping for a book that would help me understand the perspective of someone passionately committed to the Mormon faith, and found this interesting but ultimately unsatisfying.