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Maximilian Werner's 'Gravity Hill' moves up the non-Mormon spectrum of Utah life

Published April 17, 2013 7:43 pm

Utah books • U. writing teacher chronicles growing up an outsider in rare variation of the Salt Lake City memoir.
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When Maximilian Werner sat down to write a memoir about growing up non-Mormon in Salt Lake City he never worried about offending Utah's mainstream sensibilities. Instead, he stared down the dilemma faced by nearly every writer of nonfiction.

"You realize straight away you're not just writing about yourself, but yourself and a cast of other people," Werner said. "It came down to a choice of whether you don't say anything about their lives, or acknowledge that their story is also your story."

In Gravity Hill, Werner's 178-page memoir published by the University of Utah Press late last month, he opted for the latter. Names were changed in the interest of privacy. But no detail was spared, as Werner states in his author's note, that might compromise "the truthfulness of these events."

The book is the latest entry in the sparse field of memoirs about life in Salt Lake City. Past memoirs about life in Utah's capital have dealt with the hassle and hopes of newfound home ownership. Elizabeth Smart's account of her 9-month abduction at the hands of Brian David Mitchell, to be published by St. Martins Press this fall, looms large. But few memoirs have approached Salt Lake City life as a coming-of-age story along the religious divide.

"This story is not that of Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge, nor is it Amy Irvine's Trespass," writes fellow author James Barilla on the jacket of Werner's book. "Its portrait of the region, the city, the characters, and time are distinctly different, irreverent, and darkly funny. The contrast between the narrator and the Mormon culture of the region was something I'd not seen described before."

The title comes from the famed stretch of Memory Grove road east of the Utah State Capitol where drivers put their cars in neutral and expect to roll downhill, but instead move up.

In the book, Werner traces the Salt Lake City of his youth through the vague but still imposing line that separates Mormon and non-Mormon youth. "Bonding in separation," as University of Utah Press publicity materials describe it, Werner and his friends spend their time in sex, drugs and silent contemplation. These formed "the reprieve," as he calls it, of living in Utah apart from the mainstream culture. Book-ending these accounts are scenes of Werner's family life as he finds his way, sometimes faltering, into parenthood.

The book's backward cast from Werner's present life mirrors the instability of the book's title, which plays tricks on physical law. It also serves to remind readers of life's impermanence, he said.

"When you look at your kids, you see them living forever, but really they're just taking a turn the same as you and your partner are," Werner said. "That's the gravity of becoming a parent."

Life's fleeting nature is the book's lyrical center that leads in to its many metaphors, from one-night stands with young women who wear thick make-up, the teenage fondness for newfound intoxicants and, near the book's center, the LDS funeral services for a neighborhood infant Werner witnesses from afar.

"I can see my neighbors standing in the middle of the throng. I put myself there, next to them. I can see the sunlight, tear paths, and a faint haze of perspiration on their faces. Gnats hovering. I lean toward their ears to whisper words of support, but I cannot think of a single word to say," he writes.

Werner said he wrote Gravity Hill in part because he'd never seen his experience of him, or those of his siblings and friends, represented in non-fiction.

"I was never trying to take shots at Mormon culture, I was simply trying to draw and articulate a contrast," he said. "They could always take shelter in their church, whereas we were always on the outside."



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The outsider

Maximilian Werner reads from new memoir 'Gravity Hill'

When • May 10, 7 p.m.

Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.

Info • Free. Call 801-484-9100 or visit http://www.kingsenglish.com for more information.

'Gravity Hill: A Memoir"

Maximilian Werner

University of Utah Press

Pages • 192

Cost • $15.95