If Armageddon does come, God probably will smite Tony DuShane - and in the meantime, the worshippers in DuShane's family probably will shun him. That's because the San Francisco writer and radio host became a Jehovah's Witness at age 3, but later became "inactive" and has now written the definitive novel of the 1980s Bay Area horny, anxious, teenaged Jehovah's Witness experience.
To those of us not privileged with the power to smite or shun DuShane, the essence of his book might seem at first a touch parochial, but in fact Confessions of a Jesus Jerk trades in universal themes with grace and humor and great empathy. It is also, for now at least, the funniest and most charming novel of the 1980s Bay Area horny, anxious, teenaged Jehovah's Witness experience.
The title sets the tone, demonstrating right up front why DuShane's company will be more pleasant than that of an unwelcome visitor proselytizing in your doorway. His droll narrator and presumed avatar of his younger self is Gabe Dagsland, who is here to tell you that if you ever wondered whether high school might actually be easier with the certainty that the world will end before you graduate, the answer is "hell, no."
Gabe gets through his days, barely, by wondering with all seriousness whether he's for God or for Satan. He's just trying not to drown in a river of impure thoughts or succumb to the elder-implanted "condemnation entourage" he carries around in his mind. At school, he must constantly field questions, or take abuse, from his uneasy non-Witness classmates, the so-called "worldlies," then on weekends find himself in the strange position of praying he won't run into them while going door-to-door.
For various reasons, Gabe's parents aren't much help, and his Witness pals have problems of their own. He doesn't like the one girl who is interested in him, and can't even focus on which of six gazillion appetizing others he wants the most. Poor Gabe is so hormonally stoked that even Bugs Bunny in a dress will set him off. At least his worldly yet conflicted Uncle Jeff offers halfway decent advice, but of course some things are easier said than done, especially with God watching.
DuShane's potentially controversial content should not distract from his promise as a stylist. The blessing and curse of abundant single-sentence paragraphs is that they can seem like one-liners. The curse comes when the voice gets self-enchanted or intrusive, and taxes the reader's good graces. But DuShane doesn't have these problems. He has the blessing, which comes when an author channels his quick wit into the development of character, establishes a unity of tone, and moves his story forward swiftly. The one-liners here seem considered and correct, just right for delineating the urgent abbreviations of the adolescent mind. "We'd have candlelight dinners and sex," Gabe hopes on one occasion. "Jesus turned water into wine and an organization of Jehovah's Witnesses into borderline alcoholics," he observes on another. And when DuShane gets on a roll, which happens often, he's hilarious.
He makes short work of showing how religiosity can compound adolescent social and sexual frustrations instead of ameliorating them. But DuShane seems uninterested in the vengeance of retrospective judgment. Confessions of a Jesus Jerk is, after all, a familiar kind of coming-of-age tale. What makes it worth the risk of excommunication and smiting is the godly virtue of its message: that adolescence can be its own Armageddon, and that truth and compassion aren't mutually exclusive.