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Bailey, "Millstone City" (reviewed by Julie J. Nichols) Options · View
Posted: Wednesday, July 04, 2012 10:55:35 PM

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Title: Millstone City
Author: S.P. Bailey
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Fiction
Year Published: 2012
Number of Pages: 205
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: 0984360352
ISBN13: 978-0984360352
Price: $15.95

Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters

Reviewers have deep pockets full of judgment words for the works they review. For example, in my lexicon, "stunning" and "lovely" are reserved for the literary fiction that moves the reader as much for the lilt of its language as for its complex plot and epiphanic insights. "Intelligent," "well-documented," "reasoned," and "convincing" laud the nonfiction that accomplishes what good research and coherent writing together are meant to accomplish. "Beautiful" might describe some poems, some creative nonfiction, any lyrical work whose imagery and melody sing the reader to new heights.

But S.P. Bailey's noir missionary thriller, part Raymond Chandler, part Walter Kirn, part Jose Saramago, is just plain fun.

Oh, and fast.

And EVERYBODY SHOULD READ IT for a quick, fun, satisfyingly exciting read. Sometimes, the highest compliment a reviewer can pay a book is simply to say, "This one...is a blast!"

Raymond Chandler: terse, understated language. Clipped sentences. Hard-hitting action. Gritty plot line, seamy characters, nobody spared, no punches pulled.

Walter Kirn: social commentary, wide-open, witty awareness of the disoriented effect which the intersection of a lost society with a self-assured religious group can have on both (see Kirn's "Mission to America").

Jose Saramago? Well, Portuguese, for one thing. Millstone City takes place in Brazil. Bailey does us the favor of writing the dialogue as if everyone were speaking English. Only a few sentences are in Portuguese, untranslated. The effect is just right: we know the American missionary protagonist is thinking and feeling and responding exactly as an American missionary would, his impressions in his native idiom but his speech in a foreign language that's now nevertheless second nature to him. And the other characters--well, they're obviously Brazilians, but the way they think is Universal Gangster. Bailey's handling of their gruffness and roughness is spot on.

For another thing, though, despite the differences between Bailey's clipped sentences and Saramago's Faulkneresque ones, and between Saramago's atheist-communist ideology and the pervasive American-Mormon naivete that carries Elders Carson and Nielsen through crisis after crisis--or maybe because of this latter, actually--there's a surreal quality to “Millstone City” that does recall Saramago. Is all this peril for real? Surely not!

--But no. That's the problem. It is.

Elder Carson wanders out of his apartment, alone, in the middle of the night, to make a phone call to his girlfriend at home in America. How many rules does that break? Every returned missionary (and his girlfriend) knows, and we all know how tempting it is to do it anyway, especially when you've just heard bad news from home and it seems there's no support anywhere but in the girlfriend's voice. What can possibly happen if an elder just sneaks a little call?

Ah. There's the rub. Elder Carson witnesses an act of midnight violence that just happens to occur in the store where he makes his call, and is pulled inexorably into its awful maelstrom. Why did it happen? Who's behind it? Can he extricate himself from its concentricities of evil, greed, exploitation, conspiracy?

This is a terrific story. One horrifying-but-perfectly-believable danger follows another, and it keeps getting worse, you keep saying "Oh, no!" and seeing not salvation but utter destruction around every corner. This is the way it must have happened, you tell yourself--this isn't sugar-coated, it would have happened to me like that. I would have died! That's what you say as you read.

And of course I can't tell you what happens. I'd have to kill you. (No, it would just kill your well-anticipated utter high enjoyment of the first-time read.) But there are no magic solutions to any of the consequences of Elder Carson's relatively innocent rule-breaking jaunt. He and Elder Nielsen have to figure their way out of every awful turn. Good people get killed. Bad people get away. People who should be there to help (like the mission president) aren't. People who pretend to be trustworthy--you know what I'm going to say--aren't. Brazil is a baaaaaad country. Carson should never have left his house.

But these boys are intrepid. Naive, but intrepid. They try the best tricks their respective pasts have taught them, and they use the new tricks their missionary status requires of them. Do they escape? Do they win? Does everything end well? The answer to this last is no, but to learn the answers to the other questions, you'll have to read the book. And I promise you'll *want* to. You won't want to skip pages; you won't want to put it down for a while and come back later after a good action show on TV. You'll like the characters very much, you'll admire the excellently-achieved atmosphere, you'll gasp at the breadth of the Brazilian underworld Bailey brings to the light (this is a pun, but you have to read the book to see why). Order this book right now. I can't wait for the next one.
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