YOUNG GOD by Katherine Faw Morris

Katherine Far Morris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The dividing line between groundbreaking and gimmicky is very thin. When an author decides to take a risky approach, the results are usually either fantastic or awful. In the case of Katherine Faw Morris’ YOUNG GOD, the narrative falls in a shadowy in-between: it’s on the right side of bad, but never moves into the territory of good.

Nikki is the embodiment of hardcore resolve. When her mother dies in a bizarre accident, she ends up living with her father, Coy Hawkins, a man fresh out of prison. She has a place to stay and something akin to a guardian, but Nikki’s really alone in the dangerous underbelly of the North Carolina hills. And to make matters worse, she’s only 13 years old. Instead of falling into despair like any girl her age would, the youngster focuses on keeping her family as the epicenter of the county’s coke trade, a status Coy achieved before being locked up. Nikki’s plans, however, are interrupted by her father: he thinks heroin is where the money’s at now, pays more attention to pimping his girlfriend than to his daughter’s needs, and ends up raping and shooting a young girl Nikki introduces him to in hopes her virginity would bring him a lot of money. Surrounded by vileness and chaos, Nikki becomes even more focused, and everyone that stands in her way will have to deal with the power of her determination.

There are a few things that Morris does right here. For starters, the pacing is superb and the narrative moves forward in short bursts that are as quick and vicious as machinegun blasts. Also, she never romanticizes the broken place where her story takes place. There are bleached heads, heroin, dark pasts, and beer, but it all feels natural and free of judgment. Instead of walking redneck clichés, Morris delivers a unique character and the kind of unflinching, gruesome violence seldom found in mainstream crime fiction. Last but not least, there are a few passages where the stripped-down prose really shines because it presents violence in very raw, unadorned way that makes it feel all that more real:
“Coy Hawkins gets Nikki by the hair. He scrapes her across the courtyard on her hands and knees. He drags her into the apartment.”

Putting a 13-year girl in a dangerous environment and writing about her having sex and committing crimes is interesting, but only if that leads somewhere. Sadly, in Young God, it doesn’t. That lack of a point makes the sex and violence seem gimmicky instead of profound. On top of that, none of the characters are well developed and there are no windows into their thoughts, feelings or motivations, so caring about them is something that falls entirely on the reader. This lack of development further pushes the reader to think that what’s on the page was put there to shock. Sadly, it fails at that, unless the reader has read nothing but YA before reading this.

Besides the shortcomings mentioned above, one of the book’s most serious faults is the fact that it’s presented as a 200-page novel when it really is a very short novella. Incredible amounts of white space and one-sentence chapters are great ways to reach that 200-page mark, but they don’t enhance the narrative in any way and, much like the unexplored sexuality depicted or some of the pointless brutality, end up being nothing more than tricks to fill space.

Ultimately, YOUNG GOD is not that interesting or rich as a narrative and brings nothing new to the table in terms of plot. Rural noir is crowded, and it takes a lot to stand out. However, this book is a very interesting case study when it comes to marketing because, in a way, at least in my eyes, it became a victim of the hype machine behind it. If calling it a novel when it’s clearly a novella and filling pages with nothingness wasn’t enough, the book also comes with great blurbs from the likes of Frank Bill and Daniel Woodrell, and fails to live up to them. The story is supposed to be sharp and stylized, a novel edited down to its bare essence, but it ends up being more of a collection of short passages whose depth is not enough to overpower the gimmicks around it.

Gabino Iglesias