Young God by Katherine Faw Morris is a debut novel in brief, almost versified form about 13-year-old Nikki from rural North Carolina, who will do or sell whatever it takes to change her life (available May 6, 2014).
Noir should be short and bitter, and Young God, written by Katherine Faw Morris, may be the closest to an atomic sourball of literary noir that I’ve had in a good long while.
The prose can’t even be described as “cut to the bone.” A razor can’t cut this close. This is the work of the flesh-eating beetles the Smithsonian uses to clean skeletons ghost-white and empty of marrow. We’re left alone with the bones in an ossuary of pages of mostly empty space, and the tone it sets is icy as a tomb. In print this works wonderfully, lines bare on a page like haiku or single-line Sapphic verse.
NIKKI IS ALL TO HELL. A boy jumps off the cliff in front of her. She peers over the edge, watching him go.
She clenches her toes. The river is druggy and yellow and slugs next to the bottom road for miles before suddenly whipping itself into rapids and dumping, white and frothy, over the edge of this cliff.
Sixty or seventy or eighty feet below is the swimming hole. “Nikki.”
“How far down is it?”
“Like a hundred feet,” Wesley says.
Like the mean little child of Frank Bill’s Indiana meth wilds and Vicki Hendricks’s unapologetic female protagonists, we meet 13-year old Nikki as she’s about to jump off a waterfall, urged by her mother. She takes the plunge and her life changes unutterably, forcing her to strike out on her own. She’s a smart girl, a sharp observer, and knows without a guardian she’ll be put “back in the home,” so after holing up with a local dealer, she goes looking for her father:
OUT OF THE CORNER OF HER EYE she scowls at the redneck girl. The redneck girl has crunchy curls. She has big square tips. She taps them on everything. She giggles like a turkey. She’s old like Mama, twenty-nine or thirty. She’s been here three days. She’s been the one sleeping in the bed with him.
On the couch Wesley sits between them. This girl taps her nails. She taps them on her beer can. Nikki stands up. She puts her hands on her hips. She does not have to put up with this.
“Where are you going?” Wesley says.
“I got a daddy,” Nikki says.
Her father is Coy Hawkins, and always referred to by full name; he’s rough and wolfish but is not what we expect. Though a drug-dealing, murderous pimp, he protects Nikki, mostly from herself. Because Nikki has seen that the only ways out of these hollers is selling drugs or yourself, and she’s getting out any which way she can.
The flap compared the book to Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, which was about a schoolteacher who preys on her students and gets away with it because of her gender. Nikki is just as willing to do anything to get what she wants, but Morris doesn’t describe her salaciously. And the dirt-poor reality is portrayed by someone who’s lived in Appalachian Carolina, where the poverty is shown without judgment, and more thankfully, without the “squalor porn” vibe that comes from outsiders looking in. It is not pretty, it just is. And her extremely spare style is perfectly suited to it.
The prose mimics the spare lives of the characters: all that is left is survival. They dare not betray anything that could be seen as weakness. Nikki knows you only own what you can protect. She’s raised herself among wolves, and sets to honing her fangs and claws.
Young God puts you in the head of a young girl who adapts to her surroundings with chilling ease, and the Morris portrays it with a documentarian’s distance and objectivity. A great debut from a writer to watch.
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Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is the author of Blade of Dishonor, an action thriller spanning Shogun-era Japan to WWII, and the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, an anthology of crime fiction for charity. You can find him on Twitter as @thomaspluck.