Reading Young God is like being punched in the face over and over. It’s like eating sour candy until your tongue feels raw and your stomach aches but you just keep eating the candy anyways, knowing it isn’t fun anymore and it has possibly turned into a quite negative experience but dammit, there’s half a bag left. This book has few redeeming qualities but that doesn’t make it easy to put down.
We meet Young God‘s heroine Nikki, thirteen, in an opening scene that sets the tone for the rest of the novel: her momma falls off a diving cliff the wrong way, high on attention from a guy and who knows what else, and splits her head open. Nikki quickly runs from the scene of the accident with her mother’s lover and his backpack full of drugs, and the book is off and running at the pace of an adrenaline high. Nikki seems to be the girl the adage about years alone not truly measuring how much one has lived was made for, and this isn’t a tale of redemption as much as it is one of survival of the fittest and the maddest in a mad mad world.
Constantly fearing child services, just a call away, Nikki fights or flights her way from druggie guy to druggie dad, without the luxury of self-analyzation or insight surrounding the desperation of her situation. Things go from bad to worse, and from icky to really really icky, so if you can’t handle to darker stuff then this isn’t the book for you. It reminded me a bit of Tampa by Alissa Nutting in its breezy, un-analytic writing style of the most horrible aspects of human nature. Sometimes the murderers and rapists and pimps aren’t carrying on intense internal dialogue about life and ethics as they go about their dark business, these books seem to say. Sometimes people are just acting and reacting, bouncing off each other and feeding their animal drives and fleeing from consequences. A jarring statement to make, which leaves protagonists with little room for development, and even littler opportunity for us as the reader to comprehend any of their behavior. But hey, that’s life. To me this style of writing about this sort of subject is scarier than any horror novel.
I’m not sure how I feel about country noir as a genre in general. I haven’t read enough of it to make any sort of judgement, but I certainly hope we don’t see the emergence of Appalachian horror stories of poverty and blight as amusing simply because of the locale. The most intriguing characters aren’t stereotypes but the opposite, asking us to challenge our preconceived notions about the world and the way we see it. I became interested in this story after seeing a blurb shared on Elle’s Facebook page which declared the book a mix of Winter’s Bone and Breaking Bad. It feels to me as more a mix of Spun and Go Ask Alice. But Morris is a child of Appalachia herself, and she dated older men as a young rebellious thing trying to figure out her place in the world.
In the Elle interview, Morris says she cut down the novel from a longer version, and I would love to see the original story. I understand the purpose in editing it down to something brutally short for effect, but I need a bit more of a character’s internal dialogue to relate to their world. Young God is a story of drugs and violence, but its purposeful lack of depth makes it pulpy and a bit too grotesque for my taste.
If you like Young God, check out these books:
- The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
- Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
- Hill William by Scott McClanahan
- KATHERINE FAW MORRIS’S ‘YOUNG GOD’ IS A PURE ADRENALINE RUSH (elle.com)
- Stereotypes Of Appalachia Obscure A Diverse Picture (npr.org)
It’s More Than Just Meth Labs and Single Wides: A Rural Noir Primer (litreactor.com)