Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Featured Book: Rats Saw God

Steve York is the son of an astronaut. A famous astronaut who rubs elbows with former presidents and military Who’s Who. An astronaut who, Steve feels, treats his son as a trophy, someone to be displayed, someone to impress others with. Steve now lives with his mom and sister in San Diego. But for two years, he lived with the astronaut in Houston.

In Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas, Steve tells two stories simultaneously (or perhaps alternately is more accurate). We witness the action in his current life, in which he’s become a pot-smoking senior in San Diego who’s barely passing his classes (but somehow manages to be a National Merit finalist). And, from a 100-page essay he writes to get credit for English and graduate on time, he tells us about his sophomore and junior years of high school in Houston where he’s a straight-A student with a great group of friends and a fantastic girlfriend.

Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas
Simon & Schuster, 1996
Cover art by Chris Raschka

Steve’s voice is strong, narration tight (if unreliable). The dialogue is interesting, clever. Characters rich. And I love the parallel structure of the story, the way Steve’s present and past lives unfold together, so that we (and he) can see where he’s been, how he got there. And, most importantly, we realize Steve’s flaws, just as he does. His attitudes change, as ours do. By the end of the story, both the reader and Steve see the world a bit differently, see Steve’s parents differently. Especially Steve’s Dad.

And both narratives manage to be compelling without being gimmicky. The structure serves the story, not the other way around. Steve’s transformation is earned. We feel his pain and his anger at the lowest point of his high school life, but we also share in his redemption (which is much subtler than I’m probably making it sound).

The relationships between characters are also well defined and understood. Thomas shows us, in action and dialogue, how the characters feel about one another. And here’s what I mean about the unreliable narrator: Early in the novel (both in real time and in Steve’s 100-page essay), Steve tells us how he feels about the astronaut (the name he uses for his father). We then see the astronaut through that lens throughout the novel. After a critical conversation between Steve and his sister (as well as some insight Steve gains from writing his essay), Steve (and we) see the astronaut in a new light.

Steve’s friendships (and girlfriendships) are complicated and fascinating, from his membership (or, non-membership membership) in GOD (Grace Order of Dadaists) and friendship with group leader Doug, to his more intimate relationship with Dub. Then there’s Sky, the really cool supportive teacher who all of the non-conformist kids love. Sky was really the only character from the novel that really bothered me. His story arch seemed a little obvious (the only inorganic feeling part of the novel). That said, the result of his story arch is still gripping, emotionally devastating, and crucial to the novel.

This novel was published in the mid-1990s, but (despite some dated references to the Seattle grunge scene), it holds up. Rob Thomas later made a move to television, writing first for Dawson’s Creek then creating and producing Veronica Mars. His talent for dialogue and insight into the complexity of teenage life continue to make his work relevant to teens.

Recommended for boys, ages 15-18.

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