gods with a little g: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Susan Straight

I live in a place where all our stories are told in the park, in the truck, in the yard, on the porch, at the baseball diamond, or in the bar. Every year, I balance those hundreds of daily stories, of the hundreds of people in my life, here where I have lived since birth in the part of inland Southern California that Joan Didion wrote of as doomed and overlooked, strafed by Santa Ana winds, with the hundred or more books I read when I am finally alone.

I have done this since I was a child. Listened to narratives wild and devious, tender and violent, about the great-aunt who shot a man between the eyes and then with her friend dragged his body away, about my brother and his friend fishing by throwing dynamite into a lake, about my father-in-law and his brothers putting their bodies to the plow in Oklahoma after their father and their mule died; then read novels and memoirs and poetry by strangers from far away, across America and the world. But this year, on the road for my memoir, In the Country of Women, I met a lot of new writers, bought or traded for their books, and was captivated by the different incarnations of family in their pages, which I consumed at night, finally alone.

I met Laurie Frankel in Seattle, at Elliot Bay Books, and her novel This Is How It Always Is was among my favorites of the decade.  So funny I laughed on planes and in hotel rooms and then on my porch back home, the love story of two parents who have four sons, and the youngest son is a daughter, a character like I had never read before, a singular human moving through existence with plumed grace and sharp observance, and the whole world limned through the eyes of the family as tribe.

I met Faith Sullivan in Minneapolis, at a book festival, and her novels The Cape Ann and Ruby and Roland took me to rural Minnesota, her fictional town of Harvester so much like the place Sullivan’s grandmother was raised, during the early part of the century and the Depression. The girls and women of these novels witness violence and alcoholism and mental illness, they bake cakes and pies and wash clothes and try to find home in railroad stations and tiny farmhouses, and always, they help other women who are losing babies, losing love, losing their sanity, and finding their way back to hope.

I met Steph Cha in Los Angeles at another book festival, and read her amazing literary thriller Your House Will Pay in two days. Few writers know southern California like Cha, whose characters live in Granada Hills, Palmdale, South Los Angeles, Pacoima and Silver Lake; based on a shooting at a convenience store in LA, when a Korean-born woman killed a young black woman born in the neighborhood over a container of juice, this novel traces two families trying to survive the reverberations and losses after a death, and then another death, for revenge.

Also in Los Angeles, I met Bridgett Davis and bought her memoir The World According to Fannie Davis, a book countless visitors saw on my porch in April, touching the cover, as Fannie Davis, the author’s mother, who worked in the Detroit number business, looked so much like the women in my family, whose stories I had just written for my own book. Davis writes of her mother’s desire to make sure her daughter knew she was valuable, with yellow patent leather shoes and a sense of pride; I was writing about my mother-in-law and her three sisters, whose beauty and hard work are legendary here. Davis’s book sat on a small white wrought-iron table my neighbors had given me, found on the street, with a bouquet of yellow roses, and when another friend or relative saw me sitting outside, reading after work, and pulled up in a car to visit, Fannie Davis seemed part of our family, too. One of the central women in my book, Jennie Stevenson, ran numbers from her house in Los Angeles, even in her 80s, and so we told those stories again.

I have not met Tupelo Hassman yet, but cannot get over her novel Gods with a Little G, which I have read twice this year, which is about a group of teenagers in a repressive Northern California city, girls and boys who take shelter in a tire yard with beer and each other, a novel for which I have read sections aloud to countless people, especially this chapter—The Golden Rule: Beat others as you would wish to be beaten.

Last week, in Mexico City, I met my former student Gabriela Jauregui, a writer/mother/activist, and she gave me her new book, La Memoria de las Cosas, so I am reading this on the porch now, a great line: Escondidos in Escondido, California. Hidden, in Hidden, California.

Little Islands of Faith: The Millions Interviews Tupelo Hassman

Early in gods with a little g, the story’s teenage narrator, Helen Dedleder, describes a night with her friends: “And on one of those early evenings as the light in Rosary was fading, back in the early days when the glow from those first beers still warmed us all the way home, we were christened.” The syntax and sound of the sentence represents one of Tupelo Hassman’s gifts in this novel: her ability to capture the beautiful fragility of those teen years.

That fragility is created from
the novel’s tender route between grief and faith. Helen lives each day with the
memory of her mom’s death—and what that has done to her dad: “he fell right
apart, and I’ve been collecting the pieces of him since.” He begins to date a
woman named Iris, who “is the type of person who ends statements with question
marks. She is the type of person who will use the word love in sentence after sentence until it is empty as a deflated
balloon on a dance floor.” Yet Helen loves her dad—which makes her skepticism
of Iris complicated. Love complicates everything in gods with a little g, Hassman’s second novel. Her first book, Girlchild, received the American Library
Association’s Alex Award. She has written for The Boston Globe, Harper’s Bazaar, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. The
first American to win London’s Literary Death Match, she earned her MFA at
Columbia University.

Hassman and I spoke about faith, doubt, and the other ways that we fill the chasms in our lives.

The Millions: I love the way Helen Dedleder, the book’s first-person narrator,
tells her story, and the stories of those around her. Early in the book, she
describes hanging out with her friends at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage: “Like
we’re stuck, here with each other. The best and worst of everyone we know,
doing what we must but shouldn’t, becoming who we are and always will be.
Without thinking, maybe.” How did you find her voice?

Tupelo Hassman: Helen is the kind of girl I am still not cool enough to be friends
with, she’s confident and tough and doesn’t fumble (until she does) and if I
get to live in someone else’s head, I’m checking into hers. The moments of
boldness Helen has, when taking dares, when reading dirty books aloud, that’s
when I knew I’d found my girl. Because of what she’s lost, in her mother’s
death, she worries a little less than some might about how she presents herself
and about getting hurt. Having nothing to lose is a magical thing.

TM: gods with a little g is suffused with belief and unbelief. Rosary, California, is full of “Thumpers”—nearly-fundamentalist Christians who regulate everything from tattoos to the Internet (which is not allowed). Helen’s relationship with God is beautifully strained; at Vacation Bible Camp, she would make paper flowers from pages from the Song of Solomon: “Bible pages tear quietly and easily and fold perfectly.” That feels a lot like a metaphor—in fact, listening to Helen made me think of the novelist R.O. Kwon, who fictionalized some of her own emotions and experiences in leaving religion within her novel The Incendiaries. Kwon said writing the book helped her realize “there is no resolving” faith and lost faith. She laments: “I loved God. I loved believing.” It’s a beautiful sense that I think is reflected in Helen’s life. All of this is to say: could you talk about Helen’s idea of God? Of faith? Of existence and meaning?

TH: Helen
is a believer, in an unwilling way. She’s too smart to ignore an organic
instinct for connection to something greater than herself but she’s pretty
pissed at that something at the same time. And she’s too smart to ignore the
hypocrisy around her in the performative connection to faith enacted by the
Thumpers. This leaves her in a no-man’s land, really, water everywhere. But she
has her Aunt Bev’s insistence that there is more to life than meets the eye,
and Helen has her mother’s example. Helen’s mother was a person whose way of
being proved her faith and proved to Helen that faith is worth having. Helen
hasn’t quite gotten to figuring out existence and meaning yet, but she is
beginning to think about responsibility, about serving, and she may find her
answer to those questions, if she doesn’t burn it all down first.

TM: You
have a way to make your readers feel—absolutely, intensely—the emotions of your
characters, especially Helen. The grief she has for her dead mother is
palpable. There’s a great moment when Helen thinks of how her mother would tuck
her in at night: “I’d open my eyes then and watch her go, watching until she
turned off the hall light. Just as she flipped the switch, I’d close my eyes
tight, so the light would burn her shape into the darkness, a blazing pure
white against the black of my eyelids and the night, more real than any
electricity.” Her mother’s favorite Bible verse was Matthew 28:20: “And, lo, I
am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Her mother is always with
Helen, especially giving her daughter a sense of wonder; Helen even imagines the
shape of a human body forming “in the dirt and weeds of Rosary’s empty lot.”
How do you envision their relationship—and what role does faith (in all its
varieties) play in that relationship?

TH: Losing a mom. That’s a god-shaped hole. Helen’s mom, Evie, was one of those parents able to do the delicate work of instructing her child without damaging her autonomy. Maybe Evie was able to do this because she knew she wouldn’t be there to see the first years of her work done and maybe she was able to take a gentler hand because her parents had driven away her sister, Helen’s Aunt Bev. Of course, when a parent dies early, we have the silver-lined luxury of imagining perfect parenting that would have spanned a lifetime. But what is the relationship between Helen and her mom now? You know those kids who eat paint and dirt because they have a mineral deficiency? It’s brilliant and terrifying how we will try to fill unmet needs without even recognizing sometimes that anything is missing in the first place. The relationship now, for Helen, is a vacuum of need and her work is to figure out what will sustain her. In that process, she’s going to eat some dirt.

TM: Rosary
feels like a place outside of time. I read gods
with a little g in two days, during a heat wave, and it felt like I was
incubating within the book, within this strangely surreal town. One of the many
setting points that really resonates are the telephone poles: “The telephone
poles around Rosary are white with flyers.” Helen adds to the collection, but
the street sweepers take down flyers on poles: “Rosary’s desires are washed
away. In the mornings after, all that’s left are the naked staples running the
length of every pole like the bark of a petrified forest.” It’s a great, sad
image. Rosary feels like a beautifully melancholic place. Did it feel that way
to you during the writing of this book? How do you spatially, geographically
imagine the town (is it inspired by a place? an amalgam of places)?

TH: Rosary’s skyline is inspired by Vallejo, Califf, just north of Berkeley, where there is a…beautiful, maybe, oil refinery right on the edge of the water. You crest a hill and there it is, sometimes in fog. It is out of place, if there even is a place for such a thing, and monstrous, and it has taken my breath away (not an air quality joke) my entire life. The economic disparity in the Bay Area is increasingly segregating and I’m struck by the other kinds of segregation that come with that, purposefully or not, especially for young people whose freedoms are still limited by their age. Just across the bay from that factory and what surrounds it is San Francisco and all of its complicated freedoms. How can a kid cross that water? And what happens to them if they don’t?

I wrote most of gods with a little g after moving to Charleston, S.C. This is my first time living in the suburbs and I was, and still am, unprepared for the pristine desolation of this kind of a lifestyle. People come out to mow but otherwise, the streets are empty. After living in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York, this feels like another country, so well kept, and harder to escape.

TM: The
scenes between Helen and Bird—her step-brother and romantic crush—are so
awkward and believable. “When the food is ready we hold hands,” Helen narrates.
“And when Bird’s hand touches mine for those seconds over the table, his middle
finger circles around and around in my palm.” What attracts—compels—Helen to
Bird?

TH: The heart, and various other parts of the body, want what the heart and all those parts want. Bird is shiny. He’s impossible. Bird has that kind of charisma that has to be mastered or it will get him into trouble his entire life. He needs a handler, really. To top it all off, he’s found out that he’s very good at something, sex, and can’t find any reason to stop doing this thing at which he apparently excels. Or, in other words, he’s a teenager. Helen is extremely disappointed in her attraction to Bird and this disappointment makes it harder for her to stop focusing on him. She sees herself as an original thinker, making her own decisions, and here she is, like everyone else, unable to resist being awed by Bird’s parade of sex-appeal. People in recovery have this saying about going to bars, in light of the temptation they hold to fall off the wagon: hang out at the barbershop long enough and you’re going to get a haircut. Even if Helen could’ve kept sidestepping her attraction to Bird, once they start spending even more time together because their parents are dating, well. Shave and a haircut, two bits.   

TM: Catholicism haunts this book. It is like a shadow; something a bit more incantational and mysterious than the rote beliefs of the Thumpers. Rosary was founded as a Catholic town, and a few streets still hold the names of saints. There’s a scene when Bird is at a church service, sitting “in the dusty light coming through the windows and the stained glass colors his face, blushes his cheeks…And he’s beatified, like the Bible promises it will do. If we were allowed saints here, if the Catholics weren’t cursed, I would call this a sighting.” The word and concept of Rosary, of course, are central to the faith practice of many Catholics. Why did you decide to name the town Rosary? What does the word mean to you—literally, as a concept?

TH: I
love those outward symbols of faith. A person with a rosary in her hand, like
someone reading a book, is doing this thing right before our eyes: she is
believing in a world unseen. Whatever the religion, when I attend a service, I
am so moved by what in a theater is called the suspension of disbelief, and in
a place of worship, what is it? The…comprehension of belief? belief’s
un-suspension? Those moments when we remember that this need to connect with
something greater than ourselves is as real as anything else, as real as this
conversation, anyway, there is something essential there, going back, I guess,
to that god-shaped hole. To my mind, Catholicism has many of the prettiest and
most satisfying ways of evidencing faith. Because we want to touch it, don’t
we? We just want to hold this thing in our hands that we feel inside of us so
heavily but cannot manifest. Rosaries meet that need for physical connection to
what is immaterial. It makes sense to me. There are so many gaps in life,
chasms, and we fill them with faith and conceit and whatever else we can find,
rocks, to make it across. For me, I see these chasms everywhere, it’s like
there’s an insurance agent in my head with a fist full of actuarial tables,
running risk assessments for every instance: is the helmet on tight enough? how
many days until the paycheck? how far away are those sirens? here are the 100
ways to give your family salmonella. Each bead on a rosary is a way of managing
those questions and chasms, little islands of faith.

TM: gods with a little g so authentically captures the wild years of high school (and I say this about to start my 16th year as a public-school teacher). Can you talk about those years? Are they particularly ripe for great stories?

TH: Holy moly, Nick. You know a lot about teenagers. If we had a time machine and I was a student in your class, I would be…invisible. I dropped out two weeks into 10th grade and my teenage years were…a mess? a disaster? dangerous…a thesaurus entry for “unseemly adventure.” And, frankly, it is a wonder that I am here. But I had two friends, also living on edges, and though we led each other to the danger sometimes, we ultimately saved each other too, over and over again. That’s the only story there is, maybe. Those friendships we form in our teenage years can and do save our lives. And then we forget. Adult amnesia about the wherewithal of teens is a phenomenon to me. We all made stupid choices in our teens, but we also were quite more capable then most teenagers are given credit for being. How does this amnesia happen? I am guilty of slipping into this too, it’s like being slowly roofied, how as we age we succumb to this idea that teenagers aren’t the actual shit. Some child sociologists note that keeping teenagers in the category of children serves to preserve power for the older generations. Jeff Chang (We Gon’ Be Alright) talks about young people as our primary change agents. Teenage years are ripe for great stories because we make big choices then, with the power of immortality behind them. And this ability seems to escape us as we grow older and then we are suspicious of it, or jealous. We go from ride or die to bide our time in a hot second and then spend all of this old-people energy trying to stop the powerful, young, fire-bellied creatures from doing their actual jobs of fucking up and saving the world while they’re at it. I wanted to write about those kids, the ones we need now more than ever, the ones we once were.

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