gods with a little g: A Novel by Tupelo Hassman
Publication date: August 13, 2019
Genres: Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
On Monday, I reviewed a novel centered around the lives of two ministers, but it was not a book focused on organized religion. Today’s novel, gods with a little g, is the opposite, with religion at the center of everything in Rosary, California. An oil refinery town that has proudly merged church and state, to the point of cutting itself off from the nearest neighboring city, Sky. Not literally, but metaphorically in that there is no commerce or relations between the two. Thanks to punitive measures by Rosary’s evangelical Christian leaders, Sky will no longer serve residents of Rosary in any capacity (medical, entertainment, pharmaceutical) unless they have id with a Sky address. For one group of teens living there it is a hell they’re desperate to escape. Helen and her friends spend their free time hanging out in the local tire yard drinking contraband beer, trying to avoid Bible thumpers, and plotting what they’ll do once they turn 18.
We got drunk together over and over again until getting drunk together became something. Until we became something.
It may not sound incredibly subversive, but for a place where the internet is policed, no building can be higher than the church’s steeple, evolution is a myth, and pre-marital sex a crime, getting drunk is fairly wild. Especially when your group is made up of boys and girls and hookups are just one more way to pass the time. On the surface, each member seems like your average teen, but as gods with a little g progresses author Tupelo Hassman starts coloring them in in shades that are distinctly unique. There is new kid Rainbolene who’s counting the months until she can go away and get the hormones she needs to finally be the girl she knows she is. Her brother Win is the biggest boy in school, but not in a good way. Bird is the best-looking guy at school and Helen’s crush, but no one knows why his favorite pastime is beating people up.
Then there is Helen, whose mother died and whose father works for the city, renaming the streets from secular to more godly names like Good News Avenue (but who won’t take her idea for What Would Jesus Drive). Her aunt Bev runs the Psychic Encounter Shoppe and whom Helen describes as
She’s never had to bother being born again because she never let anyone stop her from living in the first place.
Helen works in the shop while her aunt tells fortunes and futures in the back to townspeople who skulk in the side door. Everyone is getting by and trying to stay out of the way of community leaders and the police, but it’s getting more and more difficult, even as the time when they can legally move away gets closer.
Hassman’s novel, GirlChild, was one of my favorite debuts in 2017. It was both bleak in its depiction of an abandoned 7-year-old girl’s life and inspiring for what a ballistic missile of a fighter she was. gods with a little g has the same feel—a setting that is rigged against vulnerable people, each of whom is doing what they can to survive and doing so with heart and humor. The difference between the two is Girlchild felt more balanced. In gods with a little g Hassman still fires her words as fabulous bullets of truth, but they’re crammed into a lot of story. Granted, people using religion as a cudgel to beat down others is an important topic, but it’s as if she wants to address every issue ever experienced by disaffected teens and so tumbles words upon words. My expectations may have been too high, but it left me feeling a little bit disconnected.