“I raised my hand to my cheek and felt for hair and there was no stubble. One pubic hair below. Adulthood cometh.”
So begins the novel, Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk (214 pgs. Soft Skull Press), the first novel by author Tony DuShane, a darkly funny and bittersweet coming of age story about Gabe Dagsland, a teenager growing up a Jehovah’s Witness in the 1980’s. Gabe is a teenage boy, with hormones raging through his developing body and one thing on his mind: sex. There’s only one problem, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a strict belief system and impure thoughts about sex can lead to eternal damnation when the Armageddon comes, which, according to them, was right around the corner.
Gabe lives in a run down apartment with his parents. His dad is an elder at the hall where they worship; his mother suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome. Gabe’s dad works at the mechanic’s shop run by Gabe’s grandfather. Gabe doesn’t have much of a relationship with his grandparents because they disowned Mr. Dagsland once he converted. However, Gabe does hang out with his Uncle Jeff, a “worldly” musicianship who is constantly trying to better himself, thus making it okay for Gabe to associate with him.
There are many rules that Gabe is required to follow, most significantly for a maturing young man: he is not allowed to act “worldly” with girls. Intimate relations are forbidden until marriage. Most Jehovah Witness teenagers get married at 18 just to explore their sexuality after years and years of suppression. While Gabe is trying his best to be a good, practicing Witness, he can’t stop thinking about girls and their breasts and what lies underneath their dresses. Moreover, the kid can’t stop jacking off in the bathroom, wasting his “seed.” In other words, Gabe is a typical teenage boy obsessed with girls. Actually, one girl in particular: Jasmine, who is a year older than him and whose strawberry scented shampoo haunts him.
After a brief introduction of Gabe when he’s in the 8th grade, and the people in his life, the story quickly shifts to high school. Because of the strict rules of being a Jehovah’s Witness, Gabe is reluctant to talk about his religion for fear of being ostracized by the rest of his schoolmates. Among other things, he isn’t permitted to salute the flag and he can’t take sex-ed. Gabe’s best friends are other Witness kids. Peter is a rebellious skater who lives in an abusive home with his mother and asshole stepfather. Peter is constantly being grounded, and beaten for mistakes he makes. Gabe and Peter hang out with Jin, overweight Korean kid who is a junk food junkie. The three of them try to their best to fit it, but it’s difficult.
As the book progresses, Gabe begins to have secret, fleeting “worldly” experiences that begin to make him question this religion, the only way of life he’s ever known. Halfway through the novel, Gabe helps out a drunk girl who has followed him back to his Uncle Jeff’s apartment after a wedding reception. Gabe gets her out of her puke-covered dress and places her in her uncle’s bed while he crashes on the couch. This relatively innocent act gets twisted around and Gabe is brought before the elders. He is disfellowed for a year after the girl makes it appear that Jeff took advantage of her (to make herself look more innocent). For one year he cannot communicate with any of his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses, even, to an extent, his own parents. To escape the torment of being shunned by the people he loves, Gabe hangs out in the library where he discovers a world of literature that he otherwise would not have been allowed to read. Kerouac, Henry Miller and Bukowski become his guides to the adult world and Gabe becomes a new person. Yet, there is still a part of him that wants to belong; a part that wants to be good in the eyes of his church, so he commits to do what he must to return to the congregation.
Gabe’s journey would seem like any other teenage boy’s, especially his obsession with girls and their body parts. Yet the pressures to conform to his religious upbringing and to try and please his parents makes Gabe’s story, and Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, a fascinating and often, heartbreaking read. DuShane has a knack for writing from a teenage boy’s point of view and really allows us to see inside Gabe’s head. He’s a funny kid and a good soul. By the time the book ends, you’ll feel that pang of sadness you get when your friend goes one way and you go another, just like the end of high school.
DuShane is a journalist who lives and works in San Francisco. Besides writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and Crawdaddy!, he also hosts the radio show, Drinks with Tony, interviewing writers, musicians and filmmakers. DuShane was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and drew from his experiences to write the book. Instead of writing a memoir, he decided that a work of fiction would make for a more interesting read. If Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, is an indication of what DuShane has in store for the literary world, his is a welcome voice.