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
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.