First of all, I don’t know if there’s ever been a better book title than Godforsaken Idaho. Second of all, this story collection is fantastic.

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Shawn Vestal took advantage of what seems to be a great gift in the writing world–a Mormon upbringing–to put together nine stories filled with history, heaven and spiritual disappointment. The book kicks off with the story “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” which is a fresh take on the afterlife in which heaven seems, in many ways, just as bad as hell. It’s a feat of world-building and a great introduction to the collection.

I loved the story “Winter Elders,” although I feel weird saying that because it is not the kind of story one can actually enjoy–it is filled with tension and culminates in a horrible act that is the definition of “surprising but inevitable.” Despite the dim view the collection takes toward Mormonism, this story contains about the best description I’ve ever seen of why one might want to take part in organized religion. The protagonist recalls his baptism on page 112: “It was as  though a bright beam of joy was pulsing from the heavens into the core of the earth, threaded directly through him.”

I think my favorite story is “Families Are Forever!” Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title. The writing is fantastic, the characters are unique, the premise is weird and, best of all, it thwarts all expectations–or at least all of mine. The protagonist is a true fuck-up, and yet, at the risk of ruining something here, it seems like maybe everything will be okay for him.

The book ends with a series of stories concerning the early days of the Mormon church. I liked them, but liked them the least because they seemed less immediate, which is probably not surprising giving the time frame and subject matter. They reminded me a little bit of Claire Vaye Watkins’s more historical stories–the whole book reminded me of hers, actually, as well as Alan Heathcock’s Volt and Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson (who wouldn’t want to read a book with hints of those in it, right?). It is not for nothing that Vestal won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction with this book.

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