For 16-year-old Helen Dedleder and her group of misfit friends, that desire is especially urgent. The kids live in Rosary, Calif., a fictional town run by religious fundamentalists, and are almost completely cut off from the outside world. Their struggle to be themselves and support one another in a community built on intolerance and hatred forms the basis of gods with a little g, the sweet and triumphant second novel from author Tupelo Hassman.
Helen introduces her hometown thus: "If you were flying in a plane over Rosary, California, the first thing you'd see is me, a skinny white girl with messy hair and a big backpack, waving you on. 'Keep going,' I'd say." And unless you have a soft spot for religious authoritarianism, you'd be wise to take her advice — Rosary is half Peyton Place, half Gilead from The Handmaid's Tale, a town where sex education is verboten, LGBTQ people are unwelcome, and "the internet is policed, so we read our porn from books like the ancient peoples did."
The town isn't a good fit for Helen, who's still hurting from the recent death of her mother from cancer, and her religious father's subsequent breakdown: "When my mom was alive he was different, whole. When she died, though, he fell right apart, and I've been collecting the pieces of him since." She spends her after-school hours working for her aunt, Bev, a psychic who's roundly hated by the townspeople. (Bev is also a sex worker who, despite the town's collective lip service toward Christian virtue, never lacks for clients.)
The rest of the time Helen spends at a tire yard with a group of young outsiders who call themselves the "Dirtbags." (Actually, they call themselves something we can't print here, so "Dirtbags" will have to do.) The kids spend their time drinking beer, fighting and being horny at one another. "Like, we're stuck, here with each other," Helen explains. "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."
Helen's plan to run out the clock until she's old enough to ditch Rosary forever is complicated by two developments. First, she befriends two oddball siblings who have just moved to town: Win, a sweet boy with a barely disguised crush on Helen, and Rainbolene, a transgender girl who can't get the hormone therapy she needs in intolerant Rosary. Then, Helen develops feelings for "the world's wrongest boy," Bird, the de facto leader of the Dirtbags, a bad boy whose mom happens to be dating Helen's father.
Teenagers exist in a world of heightened emotions, and it can be tricky for writers to evoke that state of mind without seeming either distant or patronizing. This isn't a problem for Hassman — as in her debut novel, girlchild, she captures the anxieties and affections of young people in a perfectly realistic way, without a note of condescension. In one scene, a confused and lovelorn Helen describes seeking solace in the home of Win and Rainbolene: "And they listen, even though I'm not saying anything. And they don't ask questions looking for answers I don't have. And I love them. And I hate everything and everyone else." It's a touching moment that perfectly captures Helen's dueling senses of toughness and tenderness.
And while Hassman proves masterful at recounting Helen and her friends' most painful moments, she also brings a disarming sense of humor to the novel. Much of this comes in the conversations between Helen, Win and Rain (who pass their time reading aloud hilariously named vintage erotica novels); some comes at the expense of the fundamentalist cabal that runs Rosary. (In lieu of sex education classes, the high school offers pamphlets with titles such as "Abstinence and Teens: A Hot Couple" and "1, 2, 3, No!"
Hassman is a vastly talented writer, and she brings to the novel a fascinating structure — gods with a little g is told in a series of short vignettes; the result is a staccato kind of narrative that brilliantly evokes the feeling of being a teenager, constantly addled, at loose ends, desperate to make a connection. And for all its dark moments, it's a novel that's as heartwarming as it is beautifully written. Despite everything going against them, these kids take care of one another. These kids look out for one another. These kids are alright.