Jonathan Langford’s first novel, “No Going Back,” sets a teenage boy named Paul at odds with his homosexuality, his Mormon religion, his family and his friends.
It is tired but thematically rich ground, and while the premise is promising, “No Going Back” ultimately trips on its own rhetorical bombast and fails to connect with readers. Beginning in 2003, the reader observes protagonist Paul and his best friend Chad grow up together in Oregon in a Mormon ward where Chad’s father is the bishop.
The novel opens with Paul coming out to Chad, which on its own is an opener that steers dangerously close to melodrama, but one of the novel’s biggest flaws comes into play when within four pages the perspective suddenly switches to Chad’s. The reader may wonder if Chad is really the protagonist, but as the novel begins switching back and forth from Chad to his father Richard, to Paul’s mother Barbara, back to Paul, then to Chad’s mother, back to Chad, and so on — all without any transition or clear reason, the reader cannot discern who the story is about.
Multiple perspectives in a novel, well handled, can add great dimension to the plot, but because here it feels weak and arbitrary, no character feels developed enough for readers to care what happens next to whom.
It’s also unclear whom “No Going Back” is written for. Once readers sense that events feel contrived to lay out some sort of moralized groundwork, it certainly feels aimed at a Mormon audience, albeit young adult Mormons; however, there is a little foul language and the sexual scenes, tame and cold enough to feel like a page from Stephanie Myer, would nevertheless likely not sit well with a middle school or high school audience of Mormons.
Additionally, the novel spans the years 2003 to 2009, which covers a lot of recent history and pop culture; therefore, readers catching references to Green Day’s 2004 “American Idiot” album and the 2003 film “X-Men 2” will most likely be twenty-somethings in college, but Langford’s writing — and especially his dialogue — is certainly not high enough quality to interest the average college student. (His use of the derogatory word “fag” when Paul is teased also feels forced more for melodramatic effect than for realism, and Langford’s use of internet acronyms in the novel’s epilogue is overdone.)
In addition to such potential ground for audience relevance, much of the novel’s climax takes place against the backdrop of the fight for Oregon’s 2004 legalization of same-sex marriage and a proposed amendment to overturn it — which, particularly to a post-Prop 8 audience, has room to explore how the LDS religion’s political involvement in each situation has impacted gay Mormons.
Instead, Langford uses the high school GSA and a directionless confrontation with Chad’s parents to “challenge” Paul with notions of marriage that are from a very heterocentric perspective, and since Paul is struggling precisely with being in an environment filled with such perspectives, the conflict never rights true. Furthermore, the political tension with gay marriage never has a payoff.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of ground Langford covers and the premise could certainly confront many important issues to Mormon teenagers (or college-age readers) who are gay. But unfortunately, “No Going Back” rings hollow by the last page and never gets readers to care.