Book Review: “gods with a little g” by Tupelo Hassman

Irreverence defines every decision in Tupelo Hassman’s new novel, gods with a little g. From the beginning, the main character, Helen Dedleder, demands your attention by telling you not to bother paying attention. In the first chapter, she describes waving a sign that reads, “Keep going,” at the people flying over her town of Rosary, California. Rosary’s name is no accident—the author chose it in order to riff off the religious connotations of the word. gods with a little g is full of prayers, evangelists, Bible thumpers, holier-than-thou hate mongers, gay bashers, porn-hoarding believers, and a gang of teenage malcontents, the not so affectionately named Dickheads, whose very existence proves just how sordid and hypocritical the town of Rosary can be.

Helen is one of those Dickheads. Most of the time, she goes by Hel (a fact that sometimes rankles her devout if dispirited father). Her mother died before the events of the book begin, and, since then, Helen’s father has been a wreck. When the novel opens, we see him so broken that he has trouble performing even the most basic acts of self-care. Helen has to sit on the toilet lid and walk him through all the steps of showering. “Is your hair wet, Dad?” “Pour some shampoo into your hand now.” It’s a sad scene made all the worse for the fact that Helen is just a teenager and is still figuring out how to take care of herself and who she even is. In that regard, she makes many understandable mistakes.

One such mistake is falling for a Dickhead nicknamed Bird. This Bird is such a complete and total shit that it’s expected that he’ll beat someone up at school every day. It’s how he passes the time. Early on in the book, he beats up the new kid, Winthrop Epsworthy, who always wears a dress shirt and tie to school in the beginning (later, he loses the tie). Helen helps Winthrop, and so begins a friendship in which Helen, Winthrop, and his trans sister Rainbolene spend their days eating ice cream, drinking beer with the other Dickheads at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage, and giving dramatic readings of hilariously bad Christian romance novels. Theirs is a charming friendship—except for the fact that Helen can’t admit she’s in love with Winthrop. That’s another mistake; so is pursuing a sexual relationship with Bird even though (thanks to Mr. Dedleder’s surprising and, in some respects, off-putting romance with Bird’s mother) they become stepsiblings.

Each of these mistakes serves a purpose, however, and it’s a testament to Hassman’s skill as a writer that readers not only don’t find these mistakes frustrating but actually understand why Helen makes them. Throughout, her witty, irreverent, progressive voice and unique point of view propel readers to keep reading even when the subject matter proves difficult. Some readers might find the setting of Rosary, California, hard to stomach, and for good reason. It’s the kind of place where none of the kids has a cell phone except the one trans girl who must have it for protection, where Fast Eddie gives underage girls beers if they flash their tits, where the Psychic Encounter shop Helen’s Aunt Bev owns gets firebombed one night and no one is arrested. This town, for all its sanctimonious rhetoric, just fundamentally is not safe.

Had Hassman not chosen, at the end of the book, to push back against stricture and depict her characters defying the rules of Rosary, gods with a little g would be a much less hopeful (and successful) book. On the penultimate page, Helen and Winthrop post a sign that offers, via coded language, price-negotiable, judgment-free trips to the neighboring town of Sky where young girls in trouble can seek “deliverance.” It begins: “Need a lift?” As a result, the narrative concludes on an uplifting note that holds within it the seeds of change not just for Helen but for Rosary and for teenagers everywhere resisting oppression in ultra-religious communities. If there’s one bad note in the novel, it comes in the chapter titled “Discipline,” the narration of which is needlessly self-conscious to the point of being distracting. Otherwise, gods with a little g is a near-perfect novel.

gods with a little g
by Tupelo Hassman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 978-0374164461, 368 pp.
August 2019