The Teenagers of ‘gods with a little g’ are Characters with Big Hearts

If you ask young people in America about what it’s like to be a teenager, many will say some form of, “It’s pretty lame.” There are restrictions on what you can do. School is often boring. Adults just don’t understand. But if you live in Rosary, Calif., an oil refinery town so isolated and overrun with Bible-thumpers that even internet access is restricted, being on the cusp of adulthood can get exponentially more angsty.

At least that’s how it goes down in Tupelo Hassman’s second book (after Girlchild), gods with a little g. Right from the start of this balls-to-the-wall YA crossover novel, it’s clear its scrappy, no-nonsense 16-year-old narrator, Helen Dedleder, feels she has everything to prove and nothing left to lose.

After her mother’s death from breast cancer when Helen was 10 and her father’s deterioration into a vacant shell, Helen does what any disaffected teenager would do: wear black, check out and drink copious amounts of booze.

She finds refuge at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage after hours, playing truth-or-dare and getting into trouble with a group of other teen misfits she affectionately calls the Dickheads, including Bird, the randy bad boy she (and everyone else) has a crush on; Rainbolene, who just came out as Rosary’s first openly trans person; and Winthrop, Rain’s big and lovable younger brother. “We got drunk together over and over again until getting drunk together became something,” Helen muses early on, setting a tone for the book.

Tupelo Hassman
Photo: Melissa Toms

If this sounds like yet another version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it is — and it isn’t. While Hassman does spend much of her bandwidth on short, often disconnected chapters detailing the Dickheads’ nefarious escapades (read porn, have sex, drink beer, repeat), there are also some truly heart-pinching moments, particularly in the last third of the book. One thread involving Helen’s flailing attempts to stomach her father’s burgeoning relationship with Bird’s Bible-toting mother, Iris — and, in turn, work through her attraction to Bird — feels genuine and succeeds as a weightier counterbalance to some of the other frothier aspects of the book.

In contrast to Helen’s relationships with other Dickheads — Cy, Sissy and even her estranged childhood best friend, Mo (who happens to be Bird’s nooky buddy, to an unfortunate end) — which mostly feel underdeveloped, Helen’s deepening connection to Winthrop also deserves mention. With the help of kooky but shrewd Aunt Bev, Rosary’s resident psychic, the gawky teens’ slow, tension-filled evolution from cordial, arms-length friends to something hedging toward first love is so sweet, raw and tender that it ultimately steals the show.

Gods with a little g isn’t for everyone. The story line isn’t always linear, and some of the plot elements warrant more thorough consideration. (No spoilers, but there’s something that happens in the last few pages that could fill more chapters, if not a new novel.)

Still, Hassman clearly has her finger on the pulse of the teenage psyche — especially that of a fragile but oh-so-lovable disgruntled teenage girl. By the time this gritty novel has concluded, our affection and respect for wily yet vulnerable Helen and the rest of her ragtag crew has gone from zero to full-throttle.

 

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 1, 2019)

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