Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk
(Soft Skull, 2010)
Growing up sucks. From the appearance of zits and getting grounded to disastrous encounters and embarrassing put-downs by an unattainable crush, being a teenager can be rough. But what if it was worse? What if your parents—and by osmosis, you—were members of a religion that most people consider a wacky cult? What if you were forbidden to make friends with classmates outside of your church but had to constantly fend off those same kids who wondered why you couldn’t salute the flag, or why your family didn’t celebrate Easter? What if you were convinced that God was going to annihilate your soul at Armageddon for being a compulsive masturbator? Tony DuShane answers these and other equally sinister and hilarious questions in his debut novel, “Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk,” one boy’s wickedly funny and catastrophic journey to adulthood.
Gabe Dagsland is a high-school-age Jehovah’s Witness who lives in 1980s suburban San Francisco with his father, a fanatical church elder, and his chronically ill mother. In humorous and occasionally coarse prose, DuShane describes Gabe’s life of endless church functions and sermons, of feeling ostracized and sexually frustrated at school, of half-hearted attempts at preaching door-to-door, and of fantasizing about Jasmine, an older beauty in his congregation who pays little to no attention to him. In his closed-door world, holding hands with a girl is a serious sin. Common markers of success like having a high-paying job and striving for good grades are seen as un-Christian and prideful, character flaws of the Satan-controlled “worldly people” (anyone who isn’t a Witness). However, it is his unavoidable contact with these outsiders—mainly his bass-playing uncle, Jeff, and his dreadlocked bisexual cousin Karen—that intrigues Gabe with the possibilities of life outside the church. Even though neither of his relatives has led a particularly happy life, it is the fact that they don’t try to repress unsettling past events (an abusive and incestuous relationship for Karen, and a life of drugs and debauchery while on tour for Jeff) that really fascinates him.
As high school wanes and adulthood beckons, Gabe and his two best friends Peter and Jin suffer through a series of profound personal and familial tragedies and a sexual awakening of sorts that leaves each of them questioning everything they’ve been force-fed into believing. In the end, Gabe must decide whether to stay and mend his rapidly crumbling world, or to cut all ties with it and set out in search of a new one.
Aside from the infectious and swiftly twisting plot and a slew of palpably human characters, the book offers a rare, intimate glimpse at the dogma of a secretive, closely guarded religion, based in part on DuShane’s own childhood experiences. Devoting a significant amount of the text to interpretations of the zealous literature Gabe’s father foists upon him at the slightest whiff of sin, DuShane paints a three-dimensional portrait of a culture governed by a distinct fear of youth and of the body. (“Masturbation is indeed a ‘hurtful desire.’ It is also ‘uncleanness,’ for it is an immoral practice, and this explains why the masturbator generally is ashamed of himself and hides his repugnant act from the sight of others.”) And although the punishments for “sins” may seem harsh (you can be virtually banished from the church for a year if you’re caught kissing a girl who isn’t your wife), the theme of being a teenager who feels unfairly oppressed by the adults in his life, based on a set of seemingly arbitrary rules, is one to which most readers can relate.
Beyond its somewhat unfortunate title, “Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk” runs the gamut from intensely horrible and angsty to laugh-out-loud ridiculous, and it provides a sharp and powerful introduction to a poignant new voice.
Christopher Vola is a contributing writer for the Rail.