The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Gods With a Little G’ offers a fresh take on coming of age

Tupelo Hassman’s 2012 debut, “Girlchild,” introduced us to a protagonist, Rory Dawn Hendrix, whose Nevada trailer-park upbringing is as heartbreaking as it is hardscrabble. But as Rory finds guidance from a library copy of the Girl Scout handbook, some light shines through.

Much more light shines through in almost every line of Hassman’s new novel, “Gods With a Little G.” In the years between the two books, the author has married her “eternal teen romance” and had two children; could it be that stability in her personal life has affected her work’s tone?

If so, more power to stability, because “Gods With a Little G,” narrated by 16-year-old Helen Dedleder, proves that nothing lets in the sun like being surrounded with love. Helen and her affectionately (if unprintably) named high school crew live in a desolate, isolated California mining town called Rosary, where some kind of church (not quite Roman Catholic, not quite evangelical Protestant) holds such a tight grip on the community that even Internet access is controlled. The teens live for evenings at a storefront run by Helen’s Aunt Beverley — a psychic and more — where they can crowd around a radio that tunes into broadcasts from the much more liberal town of Sky, across a valley.

They need to hear fresh perspectives. Even if Rosary’s powers that be would like to ban or ignore issues ranging from premarital sex to drug use, Rosary’s adolescents are nevertheless having sex and using drugs, not to mention experiencing every other kind of teen angst. Helen’s closest friends, twins Winthrop and Rainbolene Epsworthy, stand as avatars of otherness: Overweight Winthrop specializes in writing retro-style porn, while Rainbolene is the town’s first and only transgender person. When Helen’s father falls in love with Iris Doncaster, Iris’s hot, bad-boy son “Bird” moves in with them — and Helen must vie with her childhood pal Mo for Bird’s attentions.

This is well-charted territory, but it sings due to Hassman’s joy of text, unusual thinking and clever turns of phrase that allow even half-page “chapters” to vibrate with truth. “Mom’s rhythm disappeared slowly, like the rest of her,” Helen says of her late mother’s grace, “the way her breasts did, one after the other, like the way the Cheshire cat disappears on Alice, until all that was left was Mom’s smile hanging over us, her voice cheering us on to have good and full lives. Rah. Rah. Rah.”

Disappointments abound, especially from the divine. “This is Helen reporting from my personal Walk of Shame, and You are nowhere to be found, as usual,” Helen prays, “but I am seeing the light. A light. A little light my mom left shining for me. I guess You missed a spot.” But as Helen discovers her own free will, her adolescent journey offers hope to readers of any age. The book’s final section races along with so much action that, like me, those readers may wish for a sequel, becoming evangelists for a writer with heart.

Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”

By Tupelo Hassman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 pp. $27

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