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Work, "Don't Shoot the Gentile" (reviewed by Lisa Torcasso Downing) Options · View
jeffneedle
Posted: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 9:36:22 PM

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Review
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Title: Don’t Shoot the Gentile
Author: James C. Work
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Genre: Memoir/Humor
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 152
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: 0806141948
ISBN13: 978-0806141947
Price: $14.95 (Amazon)
Kindle: $9.95

Reviewed by Lisa Torcasso Downing for the Association for Mormon Letters

“Gentile” humorist James Work did his graduate studies in Victorian Poetry at Colorado State University in the mid-1960s. A sort of Accidental Academic from the start, Work’s primary reason for attending graduate school was purely hormonal. His girlfriend, who soon became his wife, was two years his scholastic junior, and he had no intention of leaving college—or their make-out sessions—behind. And thus he persevered with his graduate studies, in spite of an antagonistic English Department Chairman who thought Work was, well, nothing but a piece of work. However, Work’s ability to linger longer proved fated. As he dawdled in the Graduate Teaching Assistants’ office long after his peers had closed shop for the summer break, his arch-enemy, Chairman Rex, begrudgingly dropped a flyer about a job opportunity, if not in his lap, then on the floor near his feet. The flyer was clear: CSU needed an instructor to teach in their English Department, beginning the coming Fall term. Suddenly Work realized his new diploma might have a purpose after all.

But, of course, the CSU that needed the instructor was not his beloved Colorado State University, but the CSU in Cedar City, Utah (then the College of Southern Utah, now Southern Utah University), a smaller, though ambitious school desperate to fill a vacancy with someone who qualified as “other.” Meaning: “not Mormon.” This was the era of burgeoning workplace diversity, increasingly defined by the quota system, and it seemed CSUtah wasn’t making quota. But the college wasn’t down one African American or one woman. What they lacked was a Gentile, someone who could, without guilt, slip in and out of a state liquor store as comfortably as he could a church social featuring brightly colored soda and funeral potatoes. Knowing full well he couldn’t bribe, much less earn, a recommendation for any teaching position from his Chairman, Work bravely tried the direct approach and made a telephone call to Utah. A few simple questions later and he was informed his qualifications were just want CSUtah needed. Completely unaware that his greatest asset was his lack of faith, Work accepted the job, packed up his diploma, his sense of humor, his young wife, and moved all to Mormon country.

At CSUtah, Work quickly learned that his Masters in Victorian poetry “qualified” him to teach not literature, but creative writing (fine), composition (fine), journalism (whoa!), photography (that’s a college course?) and vocabulary building ($#!^). With trembling knees and a wry sense of humor, he dove in, discovering small town Mormon boundaries were often a shifting paradigm.
He was, immediately upon arrival, invited into the Coffee Klatch, a small group of non-Mormon professors and one jack Mormon, who meet clandestinely for a cup of Jo. In short order, he discovered that a certain percentage of the dry people of Cedar City apparently hosted an astonishingly high number of parties for out-of-town, imbibing, Gentile family and friends, which meant the town needed a discreet rum-runner. Soon his license to purchase alcohol from the state liquor store seemed as prized a document as any bishop’s temple recommend. But Work was also invited to Ward socials. He writes:

"If you’re getting the idea that we felt as though we were part of the community, you’re right. Our friends back in the outside world would fear for us if they knew we were sharing Orange Crush and canned-tuna casseroles with these shadowy saints who plotted dark things in secret meetings, who wore ritualistic costumes—or at least perforated undershirts—and who lay awake nights in fear of avenging angels coming to burn them at the stake for drinking caffeine or (gasp!) alcohol. Our friends back home were wrong. Almost as if Cedar City were part of a normal world of friendly interaction, I was allowed to help pour concrete sidewalks on more than one occasion. They welcomed me onto the Arts and Humanities bowling team (mostly due to my incredible high handicap and my ability to terrorize the other team by sending my ball careening down their alley instead of ours). We went wood cutting together. One weekend I was part of a platoon of experts who volunteered to sit on a neighbor’s lawn and drink his 7Up while watching him attempt to install piston rings in his ’41 Pontiac." (89)

In other words, Work felt at home in Cedar City, in spite of being different.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation in this memoir is that Work felt his co-workers, students, neighbors—the whole town, in fact—were enacting a happy conspiracy designed to keep him ignorant of the LDS Church and its teachings. If he brought up a doctrinal tenet, the subject was changed. When he tried to buy a Book of Mormon, the clerk at the student bookstore distracted him. He felt himself left to decipher the heavily coded world of small town Utah by himself. He writes, “You know how your English teacher taught you to figure out the meaning of a word by looking at its context? That’s what we did when we heard people say ‘word of wisdom.’ We deduced from the context that you should not consume tobacco, caffeine, or alcohol, nor should you cuss, covet, crave or cosign a loan application” (57). He further deduces that a “returned” missionary “had been sent back from some country demanding a replacement” (57). As the back cover aptly points out, “The title is drawn from a hunting trip Work made with fellow faculty members, all Mormons. When a load of buckshot whizzed over his head, one of the party hollered, ‘Don’t shoot the Gentile! We’ll have to hire another one!’”

In “Don’t Shoot the Gentile,” we find a charming and drop-dead funny memoir that treats small town, nuanced living with respect, candor, and delight. There is none of the political or social judgmentalism we often find lofting from the minds of contemporary humorists. Instead, we read about how a naïve young man was embraced by, and then embraced in return, the folksy intellectuals who tried their darnedest to navigate between their versions of rural and modernizing America. It’s a story of comfort and conflict, of differences that bond as tightly as similarities, of proof that honoring the “other” brings honor to the self. More importantly, it’s just plain fun. “Don’t Shoot the Gentile” is, when all is said and done, a delightful, insightful, witty and refreshing memoir that both Gentiles and Mormons alike will love.
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