This comparison by author Frank Bill, the topmost of four glowing reviews on the back cover, is what first attracted me to this title. Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal work is successful for three main reasons: its clever satirising of contemporary American culture, the veins of black humour that run beneath its violent exterior, and the way in which the climax delivers a shocking twist that causes one to question the very fabric of what has gone before in the story. The commendation immediately creates high expectations for Faw Morris’s debut to live up to.
Firstly, it’s disingenuous to call Young God a novel, or even a novella. I’m no speed reader but I finished it in two afternoons, and only then because I had to stop just shy of halfway, for reasons explained below. It comes in at under two hundred pages, and as much as half of this is blank space – used to signify the passage of time, or a change of locale or mindset. This, at least, is an interesting and relatively effective technique.
The protagonist, Nikki, “has been thirteen forever” according to the first chapter, though she claims to be sixteen in a later exchange. In the opening twenty pages she sees her “Mama” fall to her death from a cliff top (apparently an accident, Nikki later decides it’s suicide), dyes her hair pink with Kool-Aid, and loses her virginity to Mama’s partner Wesley. A few days later, she takes a dislike to Wesley’s new girl, steals his car and a bagful of pills, and absconds to her father’s trailer to emulate his profession as a dealer. Other than an uneasy repulsion at the sex scene, there’s nothing to feel regarding the rest of these incidents. Nikki seems entirely unaffected and doesn’t appear to care – so why should I do so either?
The book lacks a soul, any soul. Perhaps you need to be a drug-dealing, pimp-robbing, narcissistic pubescent girl to empathise with Nikki. She lacks credibility. She smokes, drinks, snorts crack and injects heroin, yet stays perfectly beautiful (“so much prettier” than other girls, in fact) and in complete control of her faculties, with no lasting side-effects whatsoever. In interactions with other characters – doesn’t matter who or when or what’s being said – she “puts her hands on her hips”, “rolls her eyes”, “makes a face”, or all of the above. It’s agonisingly predictable. It’s also hard to believe that a teenage girl would be given such credence by hardened dealers, or would have the temerity and the wits to pull off the sort of undertakings that she does, no matter how much eye-rolling occurs.
Away from the plot, Faw Morris produces impressive similes – “mountains crawl like a slow blue animal”, “his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin” – but these pleasant snippets do not salvage the story. At the moment of the first murder, just shy of halfway through, I put the book away for a day. It was too much to be bothered with by this point, possibly because the victim was the only character for whom I’d had even a flicker of sympathy. Having peaked in shock factor with a hundred pages to go, the second half of the book is a side show, the response to every event thereafter utterly nonchalant. More drugs. More of Nikki staring at herself in the mirror. More gratuitous violence and/or sex. Another brutal murder. “Oh”. “Okay”. “Whatever”.
There is no mention of religion or spirituality, or of anything significant to do with the age of characters, so the relevance of the title is a mystery too. Sure, Young God is indeed raw, spare and poetic, but there’s nothing smart, funny or three-dimensional about it. To compare it with Fight Club is an insult to the latter.