THERE ARE FEW pauses in Katherine Faw Morris’s brutal debut novel, Young God. It is only toward the end that Nikki Hawkins, the 13-year-old protagonist, stops to lean against a tree: “She stares at the woods for a second. They’re gloomy and still. They look like they don’t give a shit, she thinks.”
The brief meditation on nature is especially conspicuous in this sparse, grim book that is otherwise set amid the trailers and motels of Appalachia, where Nikki lives and works with her father, a local dealer in drugs, prostitutes, and extreme violence. Nikki’s mother has recently died and she believes that her inheritance is buried somewhere in the woods. They represent, as they often do, chaos and the chance for an unlikely escape.
And yet, even though the woods extend beyond her world of desperation and poverty, they are not a source of comfort to either Nikki or the reader. The apathy of nature only heightens the frightening inscrutability of the town and people who surround her.
The brevity with which Nikki ponders the natural world is characteristic of the novel as a whole. Young God is only 20,000 words; Morris cut it down from over 100,000. Several pages consist of a single sentence and the dialogue is elliptical and often untagged. It's difficult to know who is speaking to whom. Morris has been compared to the novelists Daniel Woodrell and Denis Johnson, whose novels Winter’s Bone and Jesus’ Son (sound familiar?) tackle similar themes. But her style and taboo subject matter also recall the work of Mary Gaitskill, whose strong female characters deal with prostitution, addiction, and abuse.
Whereas Gaitskill’s novels move back and forth through time, however, Young God barrels forward at uneven speeds. Morris dedicates two pages to the death of Nikki’s mother, who falls off a cliff that borders a “witch-tit freezing” swimming hole. This is in contrast to how slowly she draws out a description of Nikki playing with the makeup and backless dresses of her father’s girlfriend. The stop-and-go rhythm may jar, but it is worthwhile to pay attention to the scenes in which the prose lingers. For example, after her mother’s death, Nikki goes in search of her father. Coy Hawkins was one of the biggest cocaine dealers in the county and now that he’s found black-tar heroin, Nikki wants to become a “business partner.” When she arrives at her father’s trailer, Nikki moves through it as if she’s combing a crime scene for clues, overturning makeup, pictures, trash, and leftover food in the refrigerator. The emphasis that Morris places on this initial act of searching is evocative and foreboding: the passage reduces Nikki to the level of the reader — a stranger in her father’s home. She is ostensibly looking for her father’s stash, but we can’t help but wonder whether Nikki is searching for something more. Isn’t she also looking for an identity, a purpose, a home? Young God provokes these kinds of questions while simultaneously destabilizing them.
Morris’s novel would resemble a perverse bildungsroman if the reader’s assumptions weren’t consistently challenged by the protagonist’s neutrality. Even when she becomes fiercely committed to taking over her father’s drug business, Nikki doesn’t evince any strong emotional desires. Her agency is always undercut by her deadpan monologues and vacant internal life. Early on we learn that Nikki even “dreams of nothing, which is her favorite dream.” It isn’t a surprise to the reader when Nikki begins taking the drugs she sells. The addiction is a waking dream: after many hints and allusions, Morris explicitly states that her protagonist “feels nothing.”
Nature often appears as a distraction from the misery rather than actual relief. It is poignant that only the sheer beauty of a foggy dawn can transform the cruel realities of this trailer park and its neighboring town. In an unusually lyrical passage, Morris writes, “The sun rises. It rises over gas stations and drive-thrus and motels. It rises over parking lots. It rises over sparse trees and pale grass […] It shrouds everything in damp white cotton. It makes this place look sweet and fat. Like nothing bad ever happens.”
Not long after this misty morning, the reader becomes subject to one of the most gruesome acts of violence in the novel. After committing a ruthless murder, Nikki’s father needs to get rid of a corpse. He commands Nikki, “The old woodpile in the yard, go pull the ax out.” She dutifully obeys and quietly watches her father mutilate the body of another young girl.
Moments like these are when we, the readers, are most desperate for a message or, at least, a fully sentient character to guide us through the cold-blooded violence. Morris refuses to give us either. Instead, the text lingers on the ax that Nikki’s father uses to dismember the body. The novel’s focus on the tool seems significant, like a close-up in a film, signaling the re-appearance of the ax at a later, crucial moment. It is heavy and rusted and Nikki needs both of her hands to wrench it out of a log; it serves as a useful reminder of her frailty and her very young age. The ax and the woodpile also recall an unlikely literary antecedent in Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” in which the speaker concludes,
I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax…
Morris’s characters also forget by turning to fresh tasks and fresh crimes. But we don’t have a consistent observer who remembers and who considers what they leave behind. Instead, the reader becomes the sole witness to the numerous transgressions of the characters.
Young God leaves nothing to the imagination, unflinchingly describing the acts of its characters, no matter how monstrous. At times, Morris couches these acts in prose that tauntingly flirts with sentimentality but never succumbs to it. Morris’s strength is the sobering punch line. In one vivid example, Nikki is shocked by the color of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains: “Blue froths everything. Blue fog puffs from the gorge below.” The prose seems to ascend along with the terrain until an unlikely comparison disrupts any illusions of sublimity or grandeur: “Up here the air is like cigarette smoke.”
We experience a similar kind of bathos later in the novel when Nikki visits her younger half-cousin Levi and his bedridden grandmother. Their trailer is much more homelike than her father’s: “This trailer is a twin to the other one. Except nothing is the same. Here there are fake flowers on fake vines and branches. There are boxes, bowls, and pitchers of potpourri. There are yellow-looking doilies and frog-shaped ashtrays.” Lyrical exposition is so rare in Morris’s prose that the reader, like Nikki, is thirsty even for a pitcher of dried flowers.
During their conversation, Nikki realizes that Levi has undoubtedly grown up in this very trailer, amid the ersatz flora and fauna: “The last time she saw him he could barely walk […] He must have been here all these years.” We can immediately see the differences between this makeshift family and Nikki’s. The inertia shared by Levi and his grandmother is at odds with Nikki’s own destructive momentum. The grandmother’s health is deteriorating because of illness and age — in contrast to the physical transformation of the other characters in the book who are wasted away by drugs and abuse. This relatively normative domestic space gathers all of the necessary ingredients for a tender and sentimental scene. That is, until Nikki leaves, stealing the grandmother’s fentanyl lollipops on her way out. In her apparent betrayal, Nikki forces us to recognize what may not be immediately apparent: despite the recognizable oppositions between these two worlds, they are both bound by the same place and the same rules. Won’t the grandmother die like everyone else?
The isolation of the reader is the ultimate effect of Morris’s Newtonian plot, which keeps the book in a state of motion at the expense of emotion. Five pages before the screeching-halt-conclusion of the novel, Nikki is dreaming again, but this time, “it is not nothing. It is charged white space.” Her observation serves as an eloquent metaphor for the novel as a whole. Young God feels simultaneously electric and blank. It is a thrilling read, and Morris is an artful minimalist writer, but, at times, Young God can feel like a Pyrrhic victory. It is not just Nikki who inherits the unexpected. The reader is left to make meaning of the novel’s unceasing violence, or, as Frost writes in the final line of the “The Wood-Pile,” “the slow smokeless burning of decay.”