RYAN McILVAIN'S ELDERS reads like a photograph with a shallow depth of field: The sentences in front of you are clear and eloquent, but they're often lost in the blur of background noise (trifles like, you know, inadequate plot and pacing).
The novel follows two Mormon men on their evangelical "mission" in Brazil: Elder McLeod is an American church leader's son who goes on the two-year trip just to make daddy proud, while Elder Passos is a by-the-book, career-track missionary from the other side of Brazil. The pair's interaction has all the makings of a reality TV show—their mission almost feels constructed by the Mormon Church solely to allow the tension to build until the powder keg explodes. They come from opposing cultures and religious objectives and are placed under stifling constraints. They're provided a minuscule stipend, not permitted to masturbate, forced to spend all their time together, and allowed no interaction with the outside world except to relentlessly proselytize. As expected, Passos and McLeod become like a codependent and abusive couple living in close quarters, striking at the soft spots of each other's emotional triggers.
Many of the novel's passages are delicately crafted, even downright beautiful. McIlvain writes, "[McLeod] accepted the can from Passos, cracked the tab—the sound of barbecues, camping trips. The transporting sound of elsewhere. The elders sat on the bus-stop bench and drank in long continuous gulps, as if discovering their thirst as they tried to sate it." But the imagery tends to fall flat without the support of a plot that has strong forward momentum, and unfortunately this storyline isn't even as compelling as Keeping Up with the Kardashians (and that's saying something). It feels decidedly like reading nonfiction; the bulk of the novel is McLeod and Passos recounting the minutia of their day-to-day, door-to-door evangelical life as they attempt to convert the locals in spite of the traditionally Catholic, anti-American, futbol-crazed culture surrounding them. When the story finally reaches a climax (literally, as McLeod climaxes into the prostitute beneath him), it's a bit of a letdown. "Are you close?" the disinterested prostitute asks, mirroring my hopes and thoughts exactly at around page 250. One cringe-worthy sex scene, one long game of Quiet Mouse, two dramatic breakups, and two fistfights do not an apex make; the comparatively action-packed final 50 pages don't make up for the previous 250 plodding pages.
So the book's about a pair of Mormon missionaries, and it didn't turn out particularly gripping. What did you expect? you may ask, you sarcastic little reader, you. Should've picked up that new Scientology book.