Quick Review: Tony DuShane’s Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk

7 Aug

Instead of flying back from Provo, UT after participating in the Joseph Smith Summer Seminar, I took the California Zephyr, a train that winds through Denver, Co before crossing the plains of Nebraska and Iowa. It largely follows the route of nineteenth-century passengers who traveled from Chicago to San Francisco. While on-board, my friend Chris and I met two self-identified lez-brarians from New Zealand. We started talking about religion – about the responses of various churches to the earthquake in Samoa, to the Mormon Church’s response to homosexuality and Prop 8, to the rise of Christian fundamentalism in what they see an otherwise ultra-liberal New Zealand.

While we were talking, one of them recommended Tony DuShane’s Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk. I downloaded it a few days later onto my Kindle. The book focuses on the awkward, religion-soaked life of Gabe, a teenager whose parents attend the local Kingdom Hall. Through his eyes, we watch overweight Jehovah’s Witness moms stuff themselves with cream pies and then blame their weight gain on multiple pregnancies. We see the confused reactions of his classmates when he arrives at their doors to witness to them about the Second Coming of Christ and their imminent destruction. And, we meet the beautiful Jasmine whose budding sexuality is matched only by her devotion to God.

I read it quite quickly – perhaps within two or three days. In spite of the rapidity with which I finished the book, I felt conflicted about it after I finished it. On the one hand, it was extremely well-written. Its style is reminiscent of childhood and countless hours of reading Fudge-A-Mania, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, and Wayside Stories. It captured the wackiness of those books, in which everyday life can seem like an adventure, even if its content, which includes a suicide and masturbation, is meant more for adults.

In spite of how well-written the book was, however, there was something about it that felt off. After thinking about it for a couple days, I decided that it may have to do with the way that the book deals with faith. In DuShane’s hands, being a Jehovah’s Witnesses seems dysfunctional and boring. The adult characters lack complexity and seem to be less spiritually aware than the children around them. They are willing to excommunicate anyone who steps outside of bounds — even if that person is still a child. The sermons are boring and devoid of content, and their actions routine and thoughtless. Although these things may be true depending on which Kingdom Hall one visits, there is no sense anywhere in the book why anyone with any modicum of sanity would join or remain in the Kingdom Hall. DuShane is able to use an individual’s faith to provide laughter or to illustrate the zaniness of life but he is unable to grasp why people find meaning in these communities. At times, I felt like he was pressing too hard and making Gabe’s family too outlandish and close to the edge for them to be believable characters.

A contrast to Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Freak might be Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Smith recognizes the difficulties that religious teenagers can have in negotiating a world in which most people do not share their faith and does so with humor and wit. Her book, however, is able to portray religion in a way that is much more believable than DuShane is. In her book, Jehovah’s Witnesses are still zealots who she ultimately sees as misguided but there is a humanity to her writing that allows the reader to sympathize with them and understand why someone would join a particular faith. Her book as a result feels more real, more recognizable and ultimately, more satisfying.

Note: Reading DuShane’s book has me thinking about some of my favorite novels in which religion plays a major role. White Teeth is one. What are some of yours?

7 Responses to “Quick Review: Tony DuShane’s Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk”

  1. ep August 10, 2010 at 4:04 am #

    Thanks for the review, Amanda. Sorry it’s taken me a couple of days to get to it. I can’t keep up with this fast-paced blogging world.😉

    I’m wondering if you have an opinion on, or knowledge about, why DuShane may have portrayed his adult believers the way he did. Was it something in his own religious history that might have led him to create a reactionary portrait?

    I am wracking my brain to think of a book that would fall under the category you mentioned. The book that has had the most profound spiritual effect on me is George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Someone recounted the story in church when I was seven; it struck a chord with me. I read the book when I was thirteen. The parabolic story of redemption is sweet and simple. I think we’re all Silases, huddled over our looms and hoarding our gold, until grace enters our lives (in the myriad forms of Eppies) and changes us. I would have to examine the religion of the book more closely since I haven’t read it for years, but I love the smallness of the town gossipers and the deviousness of Silas’s friend (he steals Silas’s love and wounds his heart seemingly irreparably)and church congregation and Silas’s epileptic spiritualism.

    • amanda5245 August 10, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

      Liz,

      Thanks! I looked up his religious background after your post. I had looked quickly after I read it but didn’t find it. My search was far from thorough. On the second attempt, I found the information quite quickly. It looks like the novel is based loosely on his own experiences growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness. I wonder if part of his inability to portray the religious devotion Jehovah’s Witnesses convincingly might have to do with his movement away from the faith. I think that people who leave a religion sometimes push violently against it – trying to dislodge themselves in any and every way possible. In so doing, they often forget that there is any good in the religion in which they grew up and end up caricaturing it. Not everyone does this, but a lot do. On a side note, I think converts often do the same thing. In their zeal to become part of a religious group, they end up rejecting a lot of their former life carte blanche. Both groups often forget the positives aspects of their former belief system (or in some cases, lack thereof).

  2. Angie August 15, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    I’m going on memory here, but isn’t “Go Tell It On the Mountain” by James Baldwin about a young person and his awakening spirituality? I remember liking it when I read it in college, but I don’t remember any details about the book.

    DuShane’s book sounds like it’s interesting, but not overly. I’m assuming from your description that it’s young adult fiction? His treatment of religion and religious people seems to say more about DuShane than about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    By the way, the Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve encountered were kind and actually willing to spend their free time going door-to-door to teach people about the Jesus and the Bible. That takes guts, in my opinion!

  3. Tony August 22, 2010 at 1:27 am #

    thanks for reading the book. the novel was written with love and respect for gabe’s belief system. also, earlier drafts were written in third person to explore the motivations of the adult characters, until i realized the novel needed to be gabe’s journey.

    that switches the POV to an unreliable narrator who can only relay story from what he sees and how he feels.

    some press and interviews have asked my current beliefs, which are very different than gabe’s. i didn’t want that to skew the intention of the novel and take away from gabe’s experience, but it’s a necessary evil to get the author’s story out there to get press.

    one of my intentions in the novel was to humanize the jws and show there’s more to them than preaching.

    compared to zadie smith, smith had very limited jw experience and she didn’t have enough information regarding teachings and doctrine, so she was off on that.

    the novel was in no way a violent push against jehovah’s witnesses. at least read the novel before making such assumptions.

    the publisher’s weekly review sums it up best: “As a former practitioner, D. writes with an insider’s perspective about this unique world, balancing criticism with understanding and a convincing portrait of the struggle to integrate religion into a modern world, producing an ultimately touching story that will speak to atheists and believers alike.”

    • amanda5245 August 22, 2010 at 3:01 am #

      Tony, thank you for coming here and sharing your thoughts. I did enjoy reading the book but after I finished it, there was something about it that bothered me and seemed a bit off. My reaction to the book is based on that reaction. It wasn’t until after I read the book and after I had written the review that I found out about your previous religious affiliation. I admit my review is my own subjective experience. The girl who recommended your book obviously loved it, or she wouldn’t have suggested that I read it.

      My recommendation of Zadie Smith was not based on her knowledge of the specific beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses but on her ability to portray religious faith in a sympathetic way while still creating characters who are skeptical of their parents’ faith and in some cases, end up rejecting it.

      The only part of your response that I take issue with is your statement – “at least read the novel before making such assumptions” – in response to my statement that I felt like the book may have been a violent push back to the Jehovah Witness faith. I did read the novel, the entire thing, before I wrote a word of the review or responded to anyone’s comments. Perhaps violent was too strong of a word, but the novel did seem to revel in the salacious and I didn’t find its portrayal of religious believers credible. Part of that may have been the choice of a juvenile narrator. Whatever the reason, though, it didn’t work for me. Others may disagree, and I respect their opinions. After all, we all filter the books that we read through our own experiences.

      • amanda5245 August 22, 2010 at 3:31 am #

        On a follow-up note, I think what may be ultimately me bothering me about the book is the teleology of the book. By the second or third chapter, we know that Gabe is ultimately either not going to stay within the church or is going to undergo a lobotomy or become a hypocrite to stay within it. He is a smart kid surrounded by adults who seem to be a little bit daft. Because we can guess that this ultimately a deconversion narrative so early, it lends his faith a sense of inauthenticity, which isn’t helped by the ineptness of the adults around him.

      • Tony August 22, 2010 at 6:07 am #

        amanda, sorry for the confusion, the ‘at least read the book’ was not in response to you, i thought that was from another commenter….i didn’t realize that was your comment, which i take back my reply since you did read the novel. again, sorry for that….i didn’t doubt you read the book from your review and now realize that was your comment. sorry.

        i’m glad you reviewed the book and i have no problem with any reviews, positive or negative. thank you for reading and reviewing it.

        i only commented b/c i was personally brought into the conversation, and i wanted to reply that i wrote the novel with love and respect, and i’m far enough away from the belief system that i’m at peace with it. the novel grew organically from that.

        yes, using ‘violent push back….’ was the reason i commented since that’s an assumption of my personal motives and is completely wrong about myself as a person.

        writing a compelling narrative was more important than my opinion regarding jws. writing a novel for three years in a state of anger or violence would probably give me a heart attack.

        again, thanks for the review and reading the book.

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