20 Jan / The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri by Avi Steinberg
In an attempt to better understand the unfamiliar territory in which I find myself domiciled through June 2016 (yes, I’m counting), I’ve been reading quite a few titles that hopefully will provide insight into the mindset of some of our would-be neighbors. Many of those books aren’t included here on BookDragon as the potential controversy might not be considered, let’s just say … particularly family-friendly.
In spite of the inclusion of the name of a certain holy codex in the title of Avi Steinberg’s second memoir-of-sorts, Lost doesn’t seem to have any could-be-construed-as-blasphemous intentions. Steinberg recalls his first encounter with The Book of Mormon – in high school he happened upon a copy in a subway station and brought it home – as intriguing, but “thoroughly creeping … out” his mother was enough to keep him from actually reading the good book. His interest in The Book began in earnest as a Harvard undergrad after transferring from an Orthodox Jewish seminary … all because of (surprise!) a girl – a self-described “sort-of, Mormon.” She ended up becoming a lesbian, but Steinberg took to the book because “[i]t sounded like the backstory to every Jewish American novel of the twentieth century … [he] was delighted by the sheer weirdness of it, and was especially intrigued by the Jerusalem-to-Great Lakes saga: that was exactly the story of [his] family.” [Steinberg was born in Israel, and raised in Ohio.]
Years later, while in Jerusalem trying to finish his own book, Steinberg “saw [The Book of Mormon] with the eyes of a writer,” and Joseph Smith as its debut author/translator. He’s inspired to embark on a continent-hopping pilgrimage in the quest for truth and witnesses, or some versions thereof: “If the events that happened in these places really did happen, there would be physical evidence left to explore. And so I set out on a journey through the exotic locales of this lost Great American Novel.”
From Jerusalem, he joins “an intensive sixteen-day exploration run by a mom-and-pop company based in Utah” that includes what believers have recognized as the City of Nephi, Waters of Mormon, the Land of Zarahemla, and eventually ends “just short of the Land of Moron” – that is, “a mountain in Mexico that is believed to be The Book of Mormon‘s true Hill Cumorah, the site where … Mormon fashioned the gold plates before giving them to Moroni to carry many miles north.” Steinberg followed that path to the American Hill Cumorah in upstate New York where he would pseudonymously be cast in the original Book of Mormon-musical, the Hill Curmorah Pageant. When ignominiously, albeit lovingly, exiled off the Hill, he treks his way to the Garden of Eden (in Missouri), sitting high – literally, ahem – above a local “rave” and composes a letter full of epiphanies about reality, belief, writing, authorship, bullsh*t, and pilgrimage for all.
To listen to Lost is perhaps the better medium with which to join Steinberg’s journey: narrator P.J. Ochlan reads as if he’s sporting the proverbial cocked eyebrow, which seems to be just the right attitude to best appreciate the book. To experience Steinberg’s more memorable, spot-on observations and divinations, however, will require patience. Ending verdict? The first third fascinates (the “mythmaking” talent of James Frey adds tongue-in-cheek mirth), the middle section through the Latin America strays too far and drags too long (although Uncle Hugh might do well with a sitcom of his own), and the last third rewards with the most moments of ‘a-ha!’, ‘no way!’, and ‘whaaaaat?’
By book’s end, to believe or not to believe will, of course, be up to you.