Staff Pick: Terese Svoboda’s Tin God

April 2, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 2 min read

coverI went to an event in New York a while back, maybe a year ago, where various writers were giving readings on the theme of movies. The time limit was three minutes, although this was frequently ignored. Everyone told a personal story that was in some way movie-related — except one. When Terese Svoboda got up, toward the end, she said, “I misunderstood the assignment. I wrote a three-minute movie,” and then read, for three dazzling minutes, text that was something like a film script and something like poetry, a fragmentary series of images suggestive of a noir mystery. Something about a running man, I think, and the hands of a clock.

coverIf she was out of step in that parade of personal narratives, she was out of step in the most sublime and interesting way. All of the readers that night were good, but I wished a few more people had misunderstood the assignment. I’d only read one book of hers at that point, the in-my-opinion-mildly-flawed but delightfully strange Pirate Talk or Mermalade. This is someone, I thought, from whom one can reasonably expect originality, and I was delighted to see this suspicion confirmed in Tin God, recently reissued in paperback by the University of Nebraska Press.

In Tin God there is a conquistador, and he’s fallen off his horse in a field of tall grass. He comes to and hears whispering all around him; a tribe of grass-dwelling people have come across him in the midst of their hunt. They’re reasonably sure he’s a god — the way he lies there in full armor like a flipped-over beetle, glinting improbably in the sun; the way his eyes are the color of the sky, unsettling to a people who’ve never seen blue eyes before — but it’s impossible to be sure, so they send him a virgin to watch how he uses her and to gather proof.

Five hundred years later, a sweet but dim-witted gogo dancer named Pork loses a bag of drugs in the same field. His friend Jim threw it out of the car, which as he points out probably saved them from certain legal entanglements given that a cop was after them, but the problem is a tornado touched down in the field in between Pork and Jim throwing the bag out of the car and Pork and Jim coming back to look for it, and now the bag could be anywhere. The field is torn up and in disarray. Pork is in a certain amount of trouble.

God watches over both narratives. God is, in fact, the first-person narrator of the book, whose opening lines are “Hi, this is God — G-O-D, God with all the big letters. I’m out here in the middle of a field.” God is everywhere, especially in the field; God knows everything; God is somewhat competitive and likes to win; God sometimes takes the form of a Nebraska farm woman who enjoys donuts and drives a pickup, because why not. (“I drive by on my route that follows Pork’s, lifting My two fingers off the wheel in traditional car greeting.”)

Tin God is confidently-written, often beautiful, sometimes profane, and strange in the best possible way. It takes some time for the two narratives to come together, but the entire picture does eventually click into place and there’s a feeling, reading this book, of encountering something that hasn’t been done before. It seems to me that Terese Svoboda is a true original.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.

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