God-damned teenagers. Whether through rebellion or just trying to figure out how to survive, they’re always trying to figure out who they are, how to define themselves, and what they want in life. It’s confusing. It’s wild. It’s almost completely uncontrollable. And it’s what Tupelo Hassman’s second novel, gods with a little g, explores: that period of time when you’re just independent enough to start figuring out who you are and what you want to be.
Set in the fictional town of Rosary, California — a town so Bible-thumping you’d assume it was somewhere in Georgia instead of the West Coast — main character Helen “Hell” Dedleder has it rough. Her mom’s dead, her cat’s been missing for 10 years, the thumpers are starting to act against her aunt’s psychic shop, and her depressed dad is dating her crush’s mother. Awkward. Helen finds solace with her friends in Fast Edde’s junkyard, newcomers Win and Rainbolene, and the thought that she will, one day, get out.
gods with a little g, rather than a traditional novel format, is written in a series of vignettes. Each moment or scene could almost be stand-alone or prose poems. Chapter lengths range from several pages to an 11-word sentence. They exist to be in the moment, explore an idea in-between moments, give more context, or even show a missing cat poster. But the writing never feels disorganized. Instead, it reads as almost train of thought — bouncing from one moment to the next, in a way that can be easily followed, sometimes circling around and around, only to come back to a topic and reveal how it all connects.
Take the first couple of chapters. The novel opens with the line, “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 big backpack, waving you on. ‘Keep going,’ I’d say.” It’s here that the story finds its footing. This is the start of Helen’s world: just her, in the town where she would suggest nobody stop in. Where is she in this town? She’s in her version of church. There’s this constant refrain that Helen comes back to over and over again throughout the novel, and it starts here: Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door, and see all the people. It’s a childhood chant, one even I remember from elementary school, with complicated hand motions that only kids who went to church every Sunday mastered. But Helen’s friends aren’t Sunday School approved. Helen’s version of church is a junkyard and the people inside are her friends (“the Dickheads”), sitting in their tire pews and drinking beer after school. We learn how each teen was brought in, one by one, begat and begat. The language used throughout the section follows that religious theme — not in an overbearing way, but in a way that establishes what exactly Rosary is going to have in store for us. This is our center of the story. This is how the rest of the world will build, and it works because, right from the start, the novel is setting up its refrains, its use of language, and giving context of what exactly Helen’s group of friends means to her. This junkyard, these people stuck in this town along with her — they are her world.
From there, the story starts to move outward. This is our setup. Here’s our main character. Here’s the town she can’t get out of and what’s wrong with it. The narrative moves on to the whole of Rosary, a town named by Christians and run by Evangelicals, and its history. Rosary has angered the outside world so much that the next closest town doesn’t let Rosary’s residents cross into its city limits. Helen knows the rest of the planet is learning real facts about how the world works, but Rosary is so policed that they keep the children from learning about science. Instead, God is the answer to most scientific questions.
Then, in our first real in-scene moment, Helen’s getting a tattoo from Tucker and his homemade tattoo machine. As the needle is pressed into her arm and the letters begin to appear in her forearm, each letter is given its own beat as it makes its way into her skin. She thinks about Rosary High’s home economics class, how it reminds her of the sewing machines, how it reminds her of the past and how God is supposed to interact with each letter, just as she’s been taught. This is one of the reasons that the story flows as well as it does. Even when we move into our first real moment of the story, it comes back to what was just established — in this case, Rosary, its obsession with religion, and how it refuses to change. Tattooists aren’t even allowed in town because, you guessed it, God does not want any bodily modifications — except for baptism.
Finally, as the tattoo is wrapped up and we’re told about how all tattoos will soon be illegal in Rosary because they will get somebody important to say they are unhealthy, we learn the context of what Helen’s tattoo is. It’s one of her late mother’s favorite Bible quotes, in a font that is meant to be her mother’s handwriting. Suddenly, with this context, it turns the last couple of chapters around. We’ve built up all the reasons that Helen shouldn’t be doing this — how it goes against Rosary, why Rosary doesn’t want it, how far the town is willing to go to make this impossible to get — and then the act is twisted when we realize why she’s still willing to go through with it. The tattoo doesn’t mean rebellion. It means keeping a piece of her devout mother with her.
Hassman is great at twisting the context, building up an idea and then adding something else to the table that completely changes everything that has just been read. Whether this is a character’s motivation or detail that’s not initially given, the layers build and build, never feeling repetitive, but feeling like they’re adding on and establishing the world around Helen, making it more complex as the story continues. The story jumps, rapid-fire, between each moment and thought, yet still flows seamlessly through each of these chapters. All of what I’ve described occurs within the first 10 pages. Only one of these chapters is longer than two pages.
And it works.
Hassman never loses sight of the center of her story: Helen and Rosary. That’s where the story grounds itself — in the town, its history, its obsession with religion, and Helen’s interactions with the world that it all creates around her. No matter where the train of thought goes, no matter how long it takes to circle back around to a thought or a moment, it’s all brought back into the context of Helen, who sees the world one way, and Rosary, with its very contradictory viewpoints. That’s why Hassman is able to jump from moment to idea, from idea to missing cat poster, to cat poster to moment. There’s that grounding. There’s that centering. Hassman knows how to come back, to real it in, without making it feel repetitive or slowing the pace. The story is with Helen. Helen is in Rosary. And, no matter what happens throughout the rest of the novel, Helen is always going to the skinny white girl with the messy hair and the big backpack, waving on the plane.
gods with a little g is Helen’s story. It’s Helen explaining her world and who she is in relation to that world, even as those views change. At its heart, that’s what the book is all about, what makes it so good, and what makes it timeless. It’s about growing up. It’s about figuring out that there is no black-and-white, easy answer in life. Every choice is complicated and interconnected. There are reasons and context for why each decision is made. Then, when it’s made, it spirals and grows and builds our own worlds even further. One thing leads to another leads to another, and, to us, it all makes sense, and our own reasonings and thoughts flow seamlessly. And it’s somewhere in the middle of all of that, in the middle of all of these complexities, that we figure out who we are and who we want to be.