At the end of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” The Misfit, an escaped convict who’s just ordered an entire family shot dead, denies that murdering the doddering old lady who frantically tried to save his soul brought him joy: “Shut up, Bobby Lee. It’s no real pleasure in life.”
O’Connor’s Southern Gothic stories were full of grotesque violence, but Catholic ideals of redemption always lurked in background. Murder, as The Misfit claims, is “no real pleasure.”
Katherine Faw Morris’ first novel, “Young God,” returns to the scene of Southern Gothic, invoking the dysfunctional families and bleak landscapes of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Dorothy Allison.
At 13, Nikki, the protagonist of “Young God,” has not had an easy life. Her mother abandoned her as a baby, leaving her to grow up in a group home; her father was too busy dealing drugs or in jail.
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In the novel’s opening scene, Nikki, who has run away from the group home and found her mother, dives from a cliff into a swimming hole below. Moments later, her mother falls to her death from the same cliff.
Nikki returns to her estranged father, Coy Hawkins, and discovers that the once “biggest coke dealer in the county” is now also a pimp. Coy seems to want to protect her from his sordid life; it’s Nikki who insists she can “help” him by serving as his accomplice in drug deals, thefts and the sex trade.
Nikki offers Coy a young woman, Renee, with the intent to coerce her into prostitution. After raping Renee, Coy shoots her dead when she tries to run away. The novel goes into grotesque detail about how Renee’s body is dismembered by a rusty ax.
After Renee, Coy wonders: “What kind of daughter does that? Brings her father a whore.” Indeed, readers wonder if, unlike The Misfit, perhaps violence is a pleasure for this young woman. “Young God” asks readers to step outside their experiences and consider other childhoods and families. Through Nikki, the book asks us to consider how God-like power is formed through poverty, neglect and violence.
“Young God” is boundary-pushing fiction at its best. Ms. Morris is a writer willing to take risks with style and subject matter. Sentences are cooked down to their most basic, elemental form. Already short chapters alternate with a chapter that might consist of a single sentence surrounded by white space. Ms. Morris isn’t afraid to delve into subjects like drug addiction, loss or desperation. She doesn’t duplicate, but is clearly influenced by the likes of Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Lydia Davis and, yes — Flannery O’Connor.
There are economy and subtlety to how the author reveals character. Nikki doesn’t seem to grieve the loss of her mother, but there are signs of displacement; through the first half of the novel, she still wears the pink bikini bottoms she had on during the tragic event.
“Young God’s” rapid descent into dissolution contrasts with brief mentions of family secrets, buried treasure and a pained family past. Nikki’s description of the bedroom in her decrepit former house speaks volumes of loss: “She looks up and where her bedroom used to be there is only air.”
The novel ends with Nikki poised, ax over head, an uncanny repetition of her father. “She looks at herself in the mirrored closet. … She stares at herself. She tries to be pleased by what she sees. She has to be. … This is the future.”
Nikki may not be a “nice girl,” but she is a survivor. “Young God” doesn’t take a moral stance on the scenes of degradation it depicts, but implicitly it asks some hefty questions: Would you, like Nikki, do anything to survive? Would you become the very person who once stood in your way? Take a good look in the mirror: Have you?
I know. It’s probably no real pleasure; but then again, it’s no real pain, either.
Julie Hakim Azzam teaches Gothic literature at the University of Pittsburgh and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle (firstname.lastname@example.org).