The novel opens, memorably, with a 6-year-old boy receiving the Holy Spirit at a revival meeting. From the start, it’s clear that this is no ordinary child, as he’s both unusually serious and uncommonly gifted. But his dysfunctional family could derail his mission to serve Jesus: His father is, by turns, absent or violent, and the family’s frequent moves mean that the boy is often the new kid in school. It’s not until page 20 that readers learn the boy’s name (Ches); other immediate family members remain “the dad,” “the mother,” “the eldest brother” and so on. This anonymity indicates Ches’ solipsism, and suggests that his is an archetypal hero’s quest. However, it also allows readers to remain detached from the characters. Ches’ coming-of-age doesn’t follow a smooth path; he may be a genius—reading Nietzsche at age 12—and a surfing phenom, but drugs and crime also beckon him. Italicized chapter-ending passages reveal that the entire story is a series of flashbacks, and that Ches is currently hiding in a church utility room, either having a breakdown or an epiphany. However, his self-psychoanalysis seems far-fetched for an adolescent: “He pushed the paranoia back by reminding himself of his current victim status.…This thought sectionalized the guilt.” Jacobson is clearly fascinated by how people speak, and he creates distinctive voices, some in dialect, throughout the novel. He convincingly renders a Southern preacher’s twang, a teacher’s Brooklyn accent and Ches’ grandmother’s Louisianan drawl, even if they can be challenging to read—as when the preacher says, “[S]ayith Gawd, ‘I whill powur out maa speeritupon awl falesh in the layst days’!” At one point, when Ches attends a Christian interdenominational conference, Jacobson transcribes a panel discussion on glossolalia and Trinitarianism. Again, the individual voices emerge beautifully, but the scene seems irrelevant, as do various asides discussing the Trinity, as the Oneness Pentecostal church is held up as a bastion of orthodoxy. This theme, particularly in combination with the author’s mockery of Ches’ liberal humanist and feminist professors, makes the novel feel like a Trojan horse, conveying conspiracy theories and religious dogma inside a somewhat aimless plot.
A skillfully written novel, undermined by fundamentalist propaganda.