With the niche success of movies like "The Singles' Ward," it is becoming increasingly apparent that Latter-day Saints like to laugh at themselves. They like to see characters they recognize from their own wards. Even if those characters are a little exaggerated, they recognize a grain of truth, and it's that grain of truth that makes this genre sell.
And it's that grain of truth that makes Robert Farrell Smith's book, "Baptists At Our Barbecue," a success. In this novel, Smith takes the noble theme of tolerance and acceptance, sets it in the crazy town of Longwinded, and clothes it in the craziest cast of Mormon characters that he could make up.
The conversation between Ian and Tartan, two of the somewhat more normal characters in the book, sums it up:
"Have you ever seen people like these here in Longwinded?" Ian asks.
"Yeah, these people are just like those in my ward back in Utah. Granted, my ward in Utah had normal people as well. I think the ratio was one eccentric to every twenty normals. Here it seems to be just the opposite."
The story centers around the character Tartan Jones, a 29-year-old Latter-day Saint single who has never been outside of Utah. He gets fed up with everyone in his ward trying to set him up with their daughters and nieces and friends, takes the first transfer out of town, and ends up in a town that the locals call Longwinded.
Longwinded has exactly the same number of Baptists as it does Mormons. When Tartan shows up, he breaks the tie and brings on another feuding spat. To add to the injustice of his appearance, half of the Mormons' double-wide trailer meeting house is stolen. Accusations are flying when the little branch gets a new president, who proposes an inter-faith barbecue.
"You mean, invite the Baptists?" the stunned saints of Longwinded say. When they are finally talked into it ("Just think how much more charitable this will make us look than the Baptists," Tartan pleads), a hilariously bumpy ride to tolerance and acceptance between the two groups follows.
On the downside, the book was fairly predictable. Thee are no real surprises in the plot. You know what's going to happen from the first chapter - the question is simply how it will happen, which is sometimes surprising.
Also, some of the humorous lines are forced. (Charity pushed her hair up over her shoulders and let it fall down her back. It reminded me of someone fanning a lengthy book. How novel.)
But despite that, Smith accomplishes what he set out to do. His book is a humorous look at the more eccentric side of LDS culture. And that grain of truth is there. Reading "Baptists At Our Barbecue," you'll wonder how Smith found out about all the craziest people in your own ward.
In Smith's debut novel, his pretty-boy park ranger protagonist, Tartan Jones, flees the double trouble of pressure to wed and rumors that his unattached state reflect an interest in an "alternate lifestyle." To escape his lifelong Utah home, Tartan accepts an obscure assignment elsewhere in the Mountain West. With wry humor and empathetic condescension toward the local yokels, our hero chronicles his struggles in love and culture shock in the twisted little town of Longfellow. This community's most volatile problem is sectarian strife between Mormons and Baptists who vie for demographic dominance of the town while rejoicing in each scale-tipping arrival or departure that benefits their camp. However, the Mormons also spend plenty of time squabbling among themselves. The Baptists presumably do as well, but we see little of them despite the book's title.
This novel is very funny. I sustained a smirk throughout most of my reading, chuckled about every three pages, and down-and-outbusted up every twenty or so pages. Smith' style is engaging and clear. Below is a sample of his prose that explains why two of the book's characters do not get along:
It all stemmed from the time Orvil had appeared on Wheel of Fortune. Orvil got on the show but didn't win a single dollar. He kept spinning bankrupt, and when he finally got a chance to win he mistakenly guessed . . .
"Funger sandwich . . ." instead of Finger sandwich. It was a dumb mistake, especially considering that every letter had been up on the board except the two I's. But Orvil had never heard of a finger sandwich and thought the concept to be quite disgusting when the puzzle was finally solved by the next contestant. Bruce made a big deal about Orvil's stupid guess.
"Funger sandwich? What the heck is a funger sandwich?"
Orvil made up some lie about the Native Americans having a ceremonial treat called the funger, but admitted the truth after Bruce began searching through books at the library. Orvil did end up with a box of Tyson potpies and a really nice hairbrush as consolation prizes, but it just wasn't the same as, say -- ten thousand dollars.
Ever Since then, however, Orvil and Bruce had been bitter enemies.
This story is typical of hundreds in the book. BBBQ does have a sustained plot to work out, but it is often lost behind a plethora of unrelated shimmering anecdotal sequins. Smith molded character personalities and plot lines to service the needs of this anecdotal humor. This strategy made the humorous asides the level on which the novel is most successful. One way to read this book is as a collection of very very short short stories.
I have thus far focused on what I see as the novel's strengths. Below I level some criticisms (mixed with some more praise) which I quite readily admit can be seen as a review of the book I think the author should have written rather than the one he actually did write. However, by tackling a topic as significant and troublesome as Mormon/Evangelical relations, he takes on a responsibility to handle it with a certain sensitivity and insight. This is true whether or not the book's primary objective is light humor. And I suspect Smith is trying to achieve more than light humor anyway because at the end of the book, he begins to play with a disturbingly dark ironic situation in a way that shows promising high literary potential. A pretty despicable antagonist performs a grizzly and unwitting atoning work that makes for a Bell's of Saint Mary-style faux-miraculous community healing event. (Sorry to be so cryptic, but I don't want to be a spoiler for first-time readers.)
This probing into the deep dark places of the human condition seemed joltingly incongruous with the lightness of the book's earlier untroubled comedic depiction of violence and dysfunctional relationships. In fact, some readers may be disturbed by the surprising amount of death and violence in this work of faithful Mormon fiction, especially since it is depicted, and then laughed off, in such a cartoonish manner. Other readers, because it is cartoonish, might not even notice it.
BBBQ also buzzes with sexual energy as Tartan and his new girlfriend Charity fall in love. With a brilliance I have not seen before in Mormon fiction, and without even alluding to a single anatomical feature below the chin, Smith captures the body-wrenching God-given physical attraction -- from a male point of view anyway -- that brings couples together into Temple marriages that produce eternal families. In the LDS worldview, this power is distinguishable from the sinful lasciviousness which leads people to sexual relationships without commitment and offspring without supportive two-parent families.
This distinction, difficult for outsiders to see and thus good grist for the mill of LDS fictive treatments, has yet to be fully explored. Blurring it is common in work such as that of Levi S. Peterson whose wigged-out rural Mormons seem to have influenced characterizations in BBBQ. One Peterson character, the monumentally ill-tempered, socially inept, and physically mis-shapen Rendella Kranpitz from the short story "The Christianizing of Coburn Heights" is reincarnated as the troublesome Mary Longfellow in BBBQ. Smith is no Levi Peterson clone however. While Peterson explores deep sexual and theological dysfunctionality of people on the fringes of Mormon religion and culture, Smith examines dysfunctionality mostly in inter-personal skills and surface level Church practice among committed Latter-day Saints.
My largest disappointment with BBBQ was the lightness with which the book treated the kind of nuts-and-bolts contextualization required to make a story read like it is taking place in believable people's lives. For example, the main character is a forest ranger, yet his creator does not make the world of this occupation relevant to the story or compelling to the reader. Perhaps Smith can be allowed this since the book is not about rangering. However, the title clearly promises meaningful treatment of LDS/Evangelical relations, yet this book simply provides no theological or cultural information about Baptists other than the fact they have pastors instead of bishops.
Unfortunately, Smith's evasion of theological and cultural content detract from his book's power to be the cautionary tale about the evils of prejudice that it strives to be.
Despite these criticisms, read this book. Its success as humor outweighs my idiosyncratic take on its weaknesses. Smith is a gifted story-teller. As Joseph McConkie Says on the dust Jacket, "The kid has talent." With BBBQ, Smith has established himself among the best Mormon humorists writing today.
Films and television programs shot entirely or partially in Utah during the past year and their current video status:
...Also coming are ... the comedies "The Home Teachers," "The Best Two Years," "Church Ball" and "Eat, Drink and Get Married."
Families in entertainment have long been a tradition in Hollywood, and there is one Latter-day Saint clan that is lampooning its way into the industry with its new film "Baptists At Our Barbecue," which opened in theaters Friday.
The movie was based on Robert Farrell Smith's novel of the same name, freshly adapted for the silver screen. Several members of Smith's own family are deeply involved in the creative processes. His father, Farrell Smith and his brothers, Matthew and Mike, collaborated on screenwriting and producing the film.
"Baptists At Our Barbecue," is about a 29-year-old forest ranger whose parents are concerned about his singleness. When he moves away to a small town divided between Baptists and Latter-day Saints, it ends up that he is the one to unite the feuding congregations.
Jed Ivie, the media relations director for Halestorm Productions, said although the Smiths all have very diverse characters, they are very understanding of one another and they like to stick together.
"They see [the film] as a way to really help Robert's career," he said.
Ivie said film is too risky of a business for the Smith's to drop their other successful careers and focus on filmmaking. In fact, not one of the Smiths is a moviemaker by trade. Robert, of course, is a writer, Matt is an attorney and Farrell Smith runs a successful business. "Baptists At Our Barbecue" is a side project for the Smiths, inspired by the success of Robert's novel and Mike and Farrell's passionate interest in movies.
Robert did not write "Baptists At Our Barbecue" with the film in mind, but the Smiths were inspired by the success of Richard Dutcher's "God's Army." At that point, it became apparent that there was indeed a powerful audience for LDS filmmaking.
Robert said the process has been grueling, but still a lot of fun.
"It just seems like it's been about a 40-year project," Robert said. "It's been a really cool experience, but it's just been a ton of work. It's just amazing what goes into it."
The working dynamic with the Smith family at the core of the project was very positive, Robert said. He said he knew at times that they were overwhelmed and tired of one another. While writing the screenplay, Robert could only communicate with his brother Matt, who was in Saipan, over the phone, sometimes at odd hours in the middle of the night.
"I used to like them," Robert joked about his family. "We've been sick of each other at times, but I think we still like each other. I'm not sick of them totally anymore."
Austrian Christian Vuissa, the director of "Baptists At Our Barbecue," experienced life with the Smiths when he moved into Farrell's backyard for two months during the film's production. He said the Smiths trust one another and are supportive and loyal. Those who have worked with Robert generally agree that he doesn't save his humor just for his writing.
"Robert is very funny," Ivie said. "The way he writes is the way he is."
Robert said he wants to see how "Baptists At Our Barbecue" is received by audiences before any more of his novels are adapted for film.
"There is some talk," Robert said. "There is a sequel to ["Baptists At Our Barbecue"] called "The Miracle of Forgiveness" ... but, you know, a lot depends on how this goes."