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Book Review: Coke Newell, On the Road to Heaven. 

February 2, 2008
Reviewed for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

097879713201_sx140_sclzzzzzzz_.jpgI 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.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2008 8:47 am

    Thanks for the heads up on this book. I thought of picking it up the other day when I saw it in the local shop, but was on the fence. However, with the comparison to Kerouac’s On the Road (a personal favorite), I just might if it is still there.

  2. September 13, 2008 9:56 pm

    I completely agree with your analysis. I’m not a Kerouac fan and I felt that Newell’s emphasis on Kerouac’s style got in the way of the story.

    I am LDS and I wasn’t sure how this book would be taken by readers of other faiths, so thank you so much for this review! If you really want to understand why people are committed to the LDS church I would recommend (besides the Book of Mormon itself) reading Angela Hallstrom’s _Bound on Earth_. It’s a novel but it resonated with my experiences as a Mormon. Or maybe try _Angel of the Danube_ another (out of print) novel, but it also does a good job of portraying the Mormon experience. If you want some nonfiction a good one to try is _Safe Journey: An African Adventure_.

    Happy reading! And again thanks for the review!

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