by Pete Hautman
YA fiction. 198 pp.
Simon & Schuster. 2004.
2004 National Book Award recipient.
from the flap copy:
Fed up with his parents' boring old religion, agnostic-going-on-atheist Jason Bock invents a new god--the town's water tower. He recruits an unlikely group of worshippers: his snail-farming best friend, Shin; cute-as-a-button (whatever that means) Magda Price; and the violent and unpredictable Henry Stagg. As their religion grows, it takes on a life of its own. While Jason struggles to keep the faith pure, Shin obsesses over writing their bible, and the explosive Henry schemes to make the new faith even more exciting--and dangerous.
When the Chutengodians hold their first ceremony high atop the dome of the water tower, things quickly go from merely dangerous to terrifying and deadly. Jason soon realizes that inventing a religion is a lot easier than controlling it, but control it he must, before his creation destroys both his friends and himself.
Hmm. What can you say about this book? It presents an interesting plot motivation--Jason's doubts about his parents' Catholic faith. In the process of creating his own religion, Jason discovers some of the founding intricacies of religious dogma, such as a god (and, in its twisted way, there is a logic behind the water tower becoming the god of Chutengodianism in that it is a repository for water, which is itself the source of life and all life requires it), a cosmology (verses from the bible that Shin writes head each chapter), a hierarchy of positions within the church, and a need for ritual ceremonies.
Along the way, Hautman introduces us to a number of religious types. There's Jason, who doesn't believe in Chutengodianism any more than he believes in Catholicism; Shin, who becomes the religious fanatic, wildly obsessed with the intricacies of the faith; Henry, who sees the excitement and potential in an organization where the rules haven't been fully established yet, and when Jason tries to rein him in, goes off and forms a Protestant offshoot.
The exploration of these elements is fascinating in its own way, and Hautman is a rather decent writer. But I think, in the end, he misses the point. He almost hits it.
"Shin, are you crazy?"
"I don't know," he says. "Do you think I am?"
"Well, this water tower stuff . . . it seems like you're, you know, so into it. You don't really think the water tower is God, do you?"
His eyebrows crumples. "Don't you?"
"As a joke, sure. But . . . no, I don't."
He is looking at the sketchbook, at his rendering of Tower God Jason Bock.
"You said you did," he says.
"Yeah, but I was--"
"How do you know it's not true if you don't believe in it?"
"I . . . huh?"
He looks up from the sketchbook and into my eyes. "How can you understand something you don't believe in?"
And Jason, to his credit, even seems to acknowledge some of this on one level or another. As part of his punishment for crimes and stupidities he commits over the course of the story, Jason's dad makes him read a few books about the Catholic faith and then write up reports on them.
I met with my father the other day to give him my book reports. The meeting got off to a rough start when I told him that I had written nothing.
"Here's my report," I said, empty-handed. "I didn't care for any of them."
He stares at me, his face showing nothing. "You read them all?"
"I read as much as I could. They're all pretty much the same."
"Oh? You're telling me that Teen Jesus is indistinguishable from Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain?"
"They all require a belief in a supreme being. If you don't believe in God, then the books don't mean much."
After acknowledging that Jason has a long, lonely road ahead of him because of his lack of conviction ("You think you're an atheist then?" "I'm not sure what I am."), Jason's father tells him that he's free to worship whatever he wants. When Jason wonders what the catch is, his father merely replies, "There are a lot of perfectly good religions out there. You're a smart kid, Jason. I know you'll find what you're looking for."
Unfortunately, and this is where I think the book fails, Jason demonstrates to us that he's really not that smart a kid. Yes, we're at the end of the book, but Jason continues to be as apathetic as he was at the beginning. There isn't an indication that Jason has begun to entertain the notion of what he will choose to believe in. At least he begins to think about what Shin and his dad have said.
My fear with this book is that the few great lines that might help someone gain an understanding of faith and religion are buried and overshadowed by the excitement of creating a religion and swimming in a water tower. I believe there is merit to questioning the tenet's of one's religion. Without asking and exploring, it is difficult, if not impossible (at least for most), to draw close to God, to understand God and how he intersects with your life and influences who you are. That has been my experience as I have sought to more firmly establish my testimony in the gospel and Christ.
In the end, I can't say that I recommend this book. The writing is well done, and my hope is that this is why it received the award that it did. I can say that I'm interested in reading something else by Hautman.