Brian Evenson’s collection of stories and a novella, Altmann’s Tongue (1994) changed his life—the book put his academic career in jeopardy and wound up causing Evenson to self-excommunicate himself from the Mormon Church, where he had once been active in church activities and, while in Seattle, a “transient bishop” helping those deemed less fortunate. Before Evenson fell into Lish’s orbit, he was publishing in small literary magazines and no one from Evenson’s faith paid attention. A book from Knopf was noticed, however, and with it’s graphic violence and sex, was this the kind of writing a member of the Church should engage in?
In an Afterword from the Bison Books paperback reprint, Evenson explains:
When Altmann’s Tongue first appeared I had been teaching for about eight months at Brigham Young University. Someone sent an anonymous letter to an upper echelon member of the Mormon Church, accusing me of promoting incest and cannibalism, of corrupting the youth, of writing the sort of book that was precisely opposite of what a Mormon should write. (273)
Evenson had to respond to the letter and told “that this book is unacceptable coming from a BYU faculty member” (273) although Evenson felt justified in the aesthetic nature of his writings because “Brigham Young suggested that everything in heaven, everything in hell, and everything in between is worthy of our attention” (270). After a long period of “administrative hemming and hawing, various noncommittal utterances with vaguely apocalyptic and threatening subtexts, the leak of the situation to the press, television and newspaper coverage, strange anonymous threats by phone and by mail, public and private writing by faculty and students both for an against the book” (273-74) Evenson became dismayed by the betrayal of his right to academic freedom and the two-faced nature that accompanies any scandal14 in an English department; he took a post at Oklahoma State Univeity, Denver University, and finally at Brown University, replacing Robert Coover after Coover retired.
How controversial is Eveson’s fictions? Eighteen of the stories in Altmann’s Tongue start with a murder, of either humans or animals:
He had that day found his daughter dead […] facedown in the sun-thick mosquito-spattered mud, by the back corner, where the dark paint had started taking air underneath and was flaking off the house now and falling apart at a touch like burnt turkey skin. (“The Father, Unblinking” 3)
They wanted to kill their cats, but the problem was the problem of transportation. They invited me to dinner to beg me to drive them and their cats to the edge of town so that they, the cat killers, could kill their cats. There was no need for me to participate in the slaughter, they said, beyond driving, or any need for me to watch them kill their cats. (“Killing Cats” 9)
After I had killed Altmann, I stood near Altmann’s corpse watching the stream of mud rising around it, obscuring what had once been Altmann. Horst was whispering to me, “You must eat his tongue. If you eat his tongue, it will make you wise.” Horst was whispering, “If you eat his tongue, it will make you speak the language of birds!” I knocked Horst down and pointed the rifle, and then, as if by accident, squeezed the trigger. (“Altmann’s Tongue” 13)
As if a slap in the face to the Mormon Church, Evenson’s subsequent novel, Father of Lies (Four Walls 8 Windows, 1998) is a told in the first-person by a priest who belongs to the Corporation of the Blood of the Lamb who is molesting preteen girls in his flock, including his own daughter, and feels justified; guilty, we observe him, from his point of view, as he denied the allegations and tries to get out of prosecution and persecution for his vice.
Evenson seems to be a guy always getting into hot water. He “blew the whistle” on the Carver-Lish editing story before D.T.. Max, when he went to research Lish’s archives at Indiana Univ. and saw the marked up manuscripts and put two-and-two together; he wrote an essay for an anthology on Carver and the publisher was threatened with a lawsuit by Tess Gallagher who wanted the essay pulled. The publisher caved in and Gallagher revealed herself as anti-First Amendment to keep the “truth” of her former husband’s legacy a secret.
However, even before Evenson, an undergrad at Indiana wrote her MA thesis on Esquire and revealed the same in her 50 page paper, although little was noticed outside Indiana U. Twice in one year we looked for her paper in the campus library and it seems to have gone missing, although there is a microfische copy.
Evenson has published a number of wonderful books from Coffee House Press, FC2, Tyrant Books, and so on.