GODS WITH A LITTLE G
By Tupelo Hassman
In the main, teenage girls don’t fare well in literature. With a few notable exceptions — and some monster slayers and to-the-death survival game champions — girls in books and on screens are infantilized, overly sexualized or both. Sometimes they are mean girls, or they are so addled by crushes and lip gloss that they’re all punch lines and inconsequence. They are assaulted and murdered at such astounding rates it’s a wonder they’re not extinct. It is no easy feat to thwart the sexist tropes of girlhood, but such is the task before Tupelo Hassman in her second novel, “Gods With a Little G,” and its spirited, whip-smart protagonist, 16-year-old Helen — or Hell, for short.
Like Hassman’s debut, “Girlchild,” with its similarly dauntless teenage main character, “Gods With a Little G” is a bildungsroman that shows us a young woman in the midst of her becoming. Becoming, you will remember, is a harrowing process. Somehow most of us survive, some just barely, and some make it out only to spend a good portion of adulthood trying to stanch the bleeding. As we read, we suspect Helen will be among the latter.
She lives in a town called Rosary, a dusty evangelical hinterland in a desolate part of California. Through Helen’s eyes, Hassman establishes the setting so convincingly that I could almost smell the aging oil refinery that looms over its 27 churches. “Rosary’s skyline is a graveyard. A line of crosses and bell towers march on forever, each taller than the last,” she tells us. “The refinery has a pole rising from its center, higher than any of its smokestacks, which burn all day and all night over the crosses below.”
Rosary is, if one can say such a thing, a kind of evangelical caliphate where the school textbooks teach that “dinosaurs and man lived together at the same time.” As Helen quips, “Get thee behind me, Science.” Her sense of humor (she suggests renaming one of the town’s streets “What Would Jesus Drive”), delivered via Hassman’s high-octane prose, enlivens the bleakness of the town where R-rated movies are verboten, premarital sex and abortion are prohibited and birth control is limited. Even the internet is heavily policed, and all the people who aren’t white have been driven out. Hassman offers us a vision of regular small-town folks enacting the worst aspects of themselves and their religion; a vision all the more salient in the current climate where abolishing people and ideas we don’t like has become the new American dream.
When she was just a little girl, Helen’s mother died of a cancer likely linked to the oil refinery. Though her death doesn’t exert as much pressure on the story as it could, Hassman writes beautifully of Helen’s memories and grief: “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 … more real than any electricity.”
Helen’s Aunt Bev, proprietor of the regularly vandalized Psychic Encounter Shoppe (witchy mediums don’t play well with the locals), becomes a surrogate mother of sorts. Helen’s dad tries his best, but he’s so depressed that when she was 10 Helen had to talk him through his showers: “‘Time to get cleaned up, Dad,’ I’d say, perched on the toilet … ‘Take off your boxers and toss them over’ … ‘Move around so you get wet everywhere, O.K.?’” Helen is a young woman with a very adult set of problems.
Her friends are the sort you might remember from ’80s movies: a troubled but inherently good bunch of self-branded outcasts who stick together no matter what. Enter the Epsworthys, new kids at Rosary High who become Helen’s best friends and also provide the story with a love interest (Winthrop, the son) and a flesh-and-blood object for Rosary’s bigotry (Winthrop’s trans sister, Rainbolene). The action gets rolling from there: The threats against Aunt Bev’s shop escalate into violence, a friend of Helen’s gets pregnant and Helen’s father finds a new wife.
Engaging reading, but as I went through the short, punchy chapters I was reminded of E. M. Forster’s adage: “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” There are a great many happenings in this novel, but they don’t quite build to an arc of Helen’s becoming.
This is in part because the highest-stakes events happen to someone else — Winthrop, Aunt Bev or even Helen’s father, but not Helen. She observes. She reacts. The most significant event in her life, her mother’s death, occurred years before the novel begins. Instead of meaningful current action for our main character, the novel focuses on the more banal aspects of her life, like an ill-advised but ultimately minor tryst, and the discovery that she’s in love with Winthrop. Helen stumbles across a raison d’être (and a pretty good one to boot) in the final 10 pages, but it comes far too late to lend direction or stakes to the story that precedes it.
The most generative elements of the novel are underutilized; big questions are left somewhat unattended. What does it mean to live in a faith-based community that’s been corrupted by its beliefs? How does Helen withstand the rupture between her burgeoning sense of reality and what Rosary has told her about God and the world? How does it feel to hate a place, and love it too, because, after all, it and everyone in it are yours? For the most part, Helen is outraged and skeptical and a little sad, rather too much like you or I might be looking in on such a community from the outside. Trouble is, Helen isn’t an outsider. The novel left me aching for the intimacy and complexity that ought to accompany her insider’s perspective.
Now more than ever, it is tempting to attempt to right the wrongs piling up around us like bodies. Conscientious literature wants to protect young girls from violation and reduction, to make bigots less dangerous and powerful than they are, and to render a hard world a little safer for the most vulnerable. Hassman saves Helen: She is self-aware and good, a bit flawed but capable of facing the challenges in her life, and always on the moral (and political) high ground. Compelling as she is, she’s evolved and accountable in ways that become hard to swallow: “Every noise I make is a sob and every sob is like a backward scream, inverted, a scream at myself to do better, to be better. To start deserving what I am so lucky to still have.”
Hassman’s compassion for her characters can come across as wishful thinking. I wasn’t convinced that the worst thing to befall a trans woman in an evangelical stronghold is getting roughed up (only once!) by a couple of doofus teenage boys. I wondered why the pain of Helen’s mother’s death, her father’s prolonged depression and the constant threats of violence against her aunt didn’t leave her a little more floundering and overwhelmed.
Becomings tend to entail tough choices in which some great love, some fundamental sense of belonging, is profoundly endangered if not altogether lost. It is ugly and it hurts. It’s not that I wish Helen were a more tragic character — that indomitable, often hilarious voice of hers keeps us turning pages. But the novel needed a reckoning, some bolt through the center to illuminate Helen’s troubles, to show us E. M. Forster’s queen in the depths of her grief.
Ayana Mathis is the author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”
GODS WITH A LITTLE G
By Tupelo Hassman
356 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
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