Jason Bock has had it with Catholicism. His parents are always dragging him to Mass on Sundays and forcing him to go to Teen Power Outreach (TPO), a "weekly brainwashing session for teenagers." In response to their overbearing religious authoritarianism, he decides to create his own religion with his own rules. Called Chutengodianism, it is centered around the idea that water is the source of all life. Therefore, the St. Andrew Valley water tower must be God because it is the source of water, and life. His first convert is his best friend Shin, a dorky snail-farmer. He also converts the strikingly beautiful, Magda Price, a preacher's son, Dan, and the chaotic and wild, Henry Stagg. As the religion grows, conflicts emerge. Jason struggles to control his own religion. Shin obsessives over the religion and begins neurotically working on writing a Bible. As Henry begins gaining power within the religion, he turns it from a harmless fantasy, into a dangerous reality. Before long, the Chutengodians are in grave peril, not to mention violating several city laws as they hold mass atop the Great Ten-Legged One. Jason seeks to control his new faith before it ends not just his friendships, but his friend's lives as well.
Let's start with the good stuff. This book is honest and refreshing. Jason is just a normal teenager who's questioning the existence of God and the importance of religion. In that sense, he's very easy to relate to. I would not go as far as to classify Jason as insightful because he does not truly understand certain things. Although I would normally dislike a narrator that lacks insight, I think Jason's lack of insight enhances the experience. It is his lack of understanding that makes him a good narrator. He is young, he is questioning tradition, and he is learning firsthand what can happen when you break tradition.
Another positive is Hautman's contrast of young vs. old. Chutengodianism is young, Catholicism is old. Jason and his friends are young, their parents are old. There is a clear dividing line between the ideology of the young vs. the ideology of the old. The parents are, for the most part, very religious. Jason's parents go to church every Sunday and Jason's dad is especially fanatic. Dan's father is a preacher. Magda's parents send her to TPO every week to help deepen her faith because faith is important to her parents. The children, on the contrary, tend to reject Catholicism for a variety of reasons. Jason doesn't really believe in God. Magda joins the Chutengodians because she doesn't like to be left out of things. Dan is just easily persuaded. Shin seems to latch on to the religion like a leech. I personally think that it gives him a sense of power over other people, which he falls in love with, which is why he so ardently believes in Jason's religion. All in all, their lack of common purpose further highlights their naivety.
On the negative side, I felt that Jason's crush on Magda, although totally common among teenagers, just wasn't all that important to the story. Sure, it highlighted the conflict between Jason and Henry, but their conflict over the religion and over control of the religion was much more prominent to the plot. Also, Jason sometimes imagines himself as doing something he's not, or being someone he's not. His fantasies are short and the story returns quickly but, they're awkwardly placed. I often found myself rereading a passage over again because of confusion. Naturally, it is a minor flaw, but I felt compelled to mention it. I am an evil cousin.
Bottom line (not literally), Godless contains a compelling storyline, an intriguing cast of characters, and a contemporary story regarding an ageless question, why be religious?
I give Godless by Pete Hautman a deadly 4 out of 5 daggers
Faithfully skeptically yours,