Whatever your idea of Brigham Young University, Brian Evenson probably isn't it.
A soft-spoken, high-minded young associate professor of English, Evenson has an inner life that would amaze Walter Mitty. His short stories tear at the heart - at times quite literally. The word "macabre" comes to mind. He is a literary version of Stephen King, trading more on psychology and character than gore. Like Poe. Like Raymond Carver writing up the Addams family.And last week Evenson's first collection of short stories hit the shelves to both national praise and unease. "Altmann's Tongue" (Knopf; 237 pages; $22) is quite a debut. No Brigham Young University fiction writer has entered the writing arena at this level before.
None has gone where Evenson is pointed. He is already being booked on radio and television shows. The American reading public is becoming fascinated with this religious soul who writes stories that would make Oliver Stone wince.
"Actually, I don't think of my stories as `grim' at all," Evenson says. "I just think about the language. I'm more interested in the literary aspects of writing. Not that I haven't been tempted to cross over and do horror - one of my stories is in a current anthology of horror stories, for instance. But when the horror becomes gratuitous, I lose interest. It has to serve some kind of purpose."
In "Altmann's Tongue," the purpose seems to change with each tale. The titles of the pieces read like a ghoulish menu: "A Slow Death," "Job Eats Them Raw, with the Dogs," "An Undoing," "New Killers." The characters have European names and sensibilities. The prose is clean and almost flat - Iowa Writing School flat. This, for example, from "Eye," a story that features a woman with a shattered glass eye:
He came close enough to her to see the webbed stresses on the surface of her eye spreading out from the minute white pocks of crushed glass. He wondered how it felt for her to have the roughness of the glass' surface scratching against the insides of her eyelids, damaging them.
"Don't look at me like that," she said. . . .
Don't buy this book if syringes make you weak.
"Brian Evenson writes stories that compel and disturb," writes his publicist. " exhibits a cool morbidity not often present in American fiction. The result is strange - and strangely fascinating."
Leslie Norris, poet in residence at BYU, thinks the result is not only strange, it is also moral.
"Brian has created a whole world," says Norris. "It is a world where people work very hard, yet everything is purposeless. His great gift is the calmness he puts at the center of that world. I see him as a moral writer. He seems to be saying `This is what the world would be like if we didn't know right from wrong.' "
Indeed, in Evenson's fiction the characters are a matter-of-fact lot - taking cats out for a midnight drowning the way most folks ready for a drive-in movie, burying children in the far corner of the property the way a parakeet might be laid to rest. More than the violence (which usually takes place "off stage"), we are struck by the run-of-the-mill attitudes toward death and pain. Like Kafka, Evenson casts a deadpan glance at a world of injustice, a world that seems even more bizarre and unnerving for the simple reason it seems so normal. Of course husbands bury dead children without mentioning it to the rest of the family, we say. It's natural.
"It's a whole different kind of violence I'm dealing with here," Evenson says. "This is not violence that is entertaining. This isn't Hollywood violence - glamorized violence. It's violence trying to confront the issue of violence."
Raised in Utah County, Evenson has been a writing prodigy since the age of 15, when he began studying English composition at BYU. He is prolific and well-read - not unlike another LDS writer, Orson Scott Card.
He has spent many years abroad (hence the foreign settings and names in his work). After getting a doctorate from the University of Washington, Evenson returned to Utah. His credentials and talent quickly won him a position at BYU.
"I don't think they know quite what to think of me there," he says.
Do his colleagues know about "Altmann?"
"They knew I had a book coming out, but they didn't know exactly what it was."
Now they know. And there are more books on the horizon. It looks as if Knopf will also be publishing Evenson's first novel. And a local publisher will soon release a second collection of his short stories. "Altmann's Tongue" itself will likely catapult him to national recognition.
Is he pleased with it all? With his "shady" reputation?
In an interview with Lara Candland for the Student Review he answered the question in a very Brian Evenson way.
"Generally I am pleased with `Altmann's Tongue,' " he said, "though if I were to do it over again, I would do some things differently. . . . The work is always imperfect. But sometimes imperfections lend a face an odd beauty."
"Odd beauty" is how some critics talk about Evenson's work.
In short, this is a heady time for him. And Evenson seems to enjoy having so many people feeling off base.
"Even when my wife reads these stories, she gets a little nervous," he says. "But I'm not violent. I'm just fascinated by people who are."
In fact, the most telling piece of writing in this collection may come long before the first story even begins. The longest piece - an intriguing spin on detective novels and paranoia thrillers - has a dedication on the first page of the book.
Brian Evenson dedicates the story to his mother.