Tin God by Terese Svoboda
“Hi, this is God -- G-O-D, God with all the big letters. And I’m out here in the middle of a field. Oh yeah, I’m everywhere, duh.” These are the first lines of Terese Svoboda’s third novel, Tin God. Yes, this story is told -- first person, present tense -- by God Him and Herself (it varies). Svoboda takes us on a journey with God as our tour guide. The trip is sometimes engaging and sometimes dull, but along the way it consistently attempts to unsettle and expand our perceptions of who and what God might be.
Tin God contains two distinct stories from two different time periods, united by the terrain on which they both occur. One story involves a Spanish conquistador who has fallen from his horse and finds himself alone in an expanse of lush grass so high he cannot find his way out. The other is more current, featuring a guy named Pork who is searching for the brick of cocaine his buddy Jim threw into a sorghum field when their car was chased by a cop. Each story moves along, alternating chapters. Not until the very end of the book, do we learn some of the critical connections between the two.
With these entwined stories, Svoboda boldly and irreverently pokes at commonly held beliefs and images about God. At various times in the story God is the wind, a curious neighbor, or a buxom middle-aged farmwoman wearing a plaid shirt from L.L. Bean. God says, “Remember the girl who last year offered her firstborn to the rising river? I was behind her, in my pickup.” He reads the newspaper, even though He already knows everything. At times God addresses the reader, conversationally, giving insights about Himself. “I hate cops. I shouldn’t say this but some of them think they’re god… whenever I see a cop, I do not like to see him.” He also comments on how humans relate to Him. “They always name Me something short, like a pet that needs to be called a lot. Spot! Spot!”
Svoboda is a poet as well as a prose writer, and it shows. Her language is lush at times and spare at others. “He keeps his eyes open against the dark and then, slowly, dreams the dark into his eyes. The boy dreams too.” Svoboda is in love with words, clever with prose. “Some feel discovery between their teeth and lean forward off the prow in its search, some stumble into it without so much as tipping their hats or running up a flag, and some would rather not.” She brings the setting of the story to life. The tall green grass in the conquistador’s story is as important and richly developed as a character might be.
Some bits of the story stand out. Svoboda tells a marvelous tale of a boy destined to be sacrificed by his clan, and his sister who chews just enough through the rope that will bind him, that he manages to escape his fate. The details of this sequence are evocative, simply told; they draw us in with their imagination and humanity. And the sister is one of the most intriguing characters in the book. There is also a hilarious chapter where Pork “borrows” a cop’s dog, luring it to his car with chunks of raw steak, in the hope that the dog will be able to locate his lost drugs. The dog takes off after a rabbit.
However, Tin God also has its flaws, and they often make us feel like we are slogging through the inscrutable prairie ourselves. It becomes a challenge to keep turning the pages. The book is inconsistent in the strength of its character development and the accessibility of the story lines. The alternation of the two narratives, and the amount of information Svoboda holds in suspense, means that we must wade through many chapters before we know any character well enough to care about him.
Parts of the story also lack direction. We meander through the tall grass with the armored man for what feels like eternity. There are portions of the prose that go on and on -- clause after beautiful clause -- until we have no idea what’s happening or why we should care.
Tin God is a book on a quest. The premise is intriguing. The language is delicious. But readers may feel that they need a map and compass to keep up with this particular journey, and somewhere along the way they may decide the trip is just not worth the effort.
Tin God by Terese Svoboda
University of Nebraska Press