Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
Joan Didion was right: Words are weapons to be deployed strategically. Katherine Faw Morris's debut, Young God charts the story of thirteen-year-old Nikki. At the beginning of the novel her mother falls sixty feet into a swimming hole, her body slamming into rocks along the way. Nobody mourns her; the characters in Morris's Appalachian mountains have no time or emotional energy for a feeling so superfluous. Nikki merely wonders if her head looks like "a dog-bitten basketball or not," then she goes home and has sex with her mother's boyfriend.
It's a jarring start, but this is a place where people are driven by instincts, not ethics, and it doesn't take long for Young God to de-calibrate your moral compass. Events take place through the eyes of our thirteen-year old protagonist, who observes rape, murder, and drug deals at the sort of glacial remove developed over years of maltreatment and a fresh enthusiasm for narcotics.
But if Young God desensitizes you morally, it compensates by leaving you hypersensitive and raw in its descriptions of everything else. The environment is vivid and ripe for exploring with your whole sensorium. Rivers are "witch-tit freezing," mountains crawl "like a slow blue animal," taking ecstasy means "something warm inside [Nikki's] brain bursts and bursts and bursts." Heroin smells "like burnt ketchup," cocaine smells "cold and chemical, like the inside of a refrigerator," and everything happens with the burning immediacy of the present tense.
Dreading a return to social services, Nikki steals a truck and drives up to the boonies to stay with her father, Coy Hawkins. Throughout the entire novel, he never loses this three-syllable moniker. He never lapses into first-name familiarity for Nikki or for the reader because these characters are ultimately unknowable to each other. Out in the wilds of Wilkes County, people don't exactly connect. This is a Darwinian fight for survival far fiercer than anything you'd catch David Attenborough narrating.
Coy Hawkins used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county, and Nikki adapts to his life with alarming ease. The bizarre father-daughter relationship that unfolds forms the core of the novel, with Nikki's role falling somewhere between apprentice and feral cat. At one point she brings a young girl home and drags her, like a half-nibbled bird, right up to where Coy Hawkins is sat and states proudly, "This is Renee, she's a virgin." In Nikki's warped world this whole scene is perfectly logical. Coy Hawkins is a pimp, virgins earn more money, Renee is a virgin. Simple.
It's a horrible case of learning by example, something Nikki is incredibly good at. Nobody really ever tells the scrawny teen how to do anything, but she is smart and observant; she picks things up. Nikki knows how to buy and sell heroin after seeing her dad do it once. In fact, she's pretty good at it.
All this should be horrifying, but from Nikki's canted perspective, it is the only way she can ensure her independence. Katherine Faw Morris doesn't paint her protagonist as someone to pity, despite the troubling violence that surrounds her. Sympathy for these characters would be too difficult to grant. Instead I was pulled in and out of a connection with Nikki, she stirred up a complex, contradictory set of feelings that had me scared both for her and of her, usually simultaneously.
The reason I was drawn to this book was the title, there are moments of adolescence when you do feel like a young god. Instants of invincibility because death feels too distant to imagine, or situations when you're made newly aware of your own appeal. These can make you feel quite powerful, though in reality they often occur when you're at your most vulnerable. Nikki is a master of such moments; always almost a victim, but not quite.
When Coy Hawkins's girlfriend does Nikki's make up, her "scalp prickles and she wishes it would always." Suddenly I'm transported back to being twelve years old, my best friend plaiting my hair, the scalp prickling that happens (I think) is one of those universally pleasurable feelings. It's a tender image and one that works to humanize Nikki. It reminds us of her youth and simplicity, but a couple of pages later she's helping her dad hack a body to pieces. There's a constant push and pull thing that happens in the way that we identify with her. For the most part Morris keeps her readers a little alienated, a little ambivalent, perhaps even a little numb. But every now and then she hits you with something electric and devastating: blunt reminders of Nikki's fragility, or small explanations accounting, in part, for her emotional disfigurement. When Nikki has sex for the first time "it is not at all like she thought and much more like a jackhammer"; she feels blurry after drinking moonshine and wonders "if this is shitfaced or just drunk." Sentences like this stand alone on empty pages: "HEROIN IS THE MOST SECRET OF THEM ALL and needles are the most secret part and she has always loved secrets ever since she was a little girl."
Katherine Faw Morris has a thing for blank pages. What makes this book so powerful is the debut novelist's incredible efficiency with words. I understand that people might want to align her within the tradition of the gothic south, or country noir, and certainly (perhaps accidentally) Young God will capitalize on popular culture's renewed fascination with middle-of-nowhere America (I'm looking at you, True Detective), but if I were to place Morris next to anyone on my bookshelf it would be Renata Adler. She and Adler share the same staccato style, frenetic vignettes and gleaming sentences. Morris jump cuts from one scene to the next the same way that Adler's Speedboat does, the only difference is that she waits until the following page to begin the next scene, leaving a vast expanse of white. Perhaps Morris understands that you need the blank space as a chance to recuperate before discovering whatever atrocity is next, because sometimes, these sentences can punch you in the gut.
A recurring motif in the novel is a dream of "nothing," which is Nikki's favorite dream. At the end, however, we learn that it is not quite nothing but "charged white space," which is both nothingness invested with the memory of whatever's just happened and nothingness that's anticipating whatever is about to. It is the white walls of art galleries and the blank pages that let poems breathe. In Young God, it functions as this tense space that allows, or even forces, readers to linger in the moment. The charged-white-space moment where an infinite number of possibilities live. I think that's what made the book so successful for me. Even though I've finished it, I'm still in that space. Young God is the kind of single-sitting read that leaves you hemorrhaging.
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux