>>Finally got around to it: July 2014
One of Angel’s fingers is holding the elastic of the bikini bottom away from Nikki’s skin. Nikki clamps her legs shut.
Angel smirks. Angel nods at the bed where Coy Hawkins is sleeping. The covers are on the floor. He’s half-wrapped in the fitted sheet.
“He’s just waiting to see who’s gonna pay the most money for you,” Angel says.
“What?” Nikki says.
“It’s called the high bid. Because you’re a virgin.”
“I ain’t a virgin.”
Angel puts on Nikki’s white sunglasses.
“You act like one,” Angel says.
“I don’t gotta work for him. He’s my daddy,” Nikki says.
Angel turns to look at Nikki.
“That don’t matter.”
Nikki Hawkins is a switchblade in the body of a thirteen-year-old girl. In Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God, the teenage protagonist is living in the North Carolina hills with her mama (a barely thirty former teenage mother) and her mama’s junkie boyfriend/fuck puppet Wesley. When her mama slips and falls to her death from atop a cliff near the start of the novel, young Nikki does what few children her age would ever dream of doing and embarks on a mission to maintain her family’s position as top dogs in the local drug trade. In order to accomplish this potentially overwhelming task, she steals Wesley’s car and goes to her father Coy Hawkins, ostensibly to find a buried inheritance she’s owed but also to learn from him the ins and outs of the trade—hopefully without getting killed in the process.
As expected, things do not go smoothly for Nikki. Fuck smoothly—things are never not horrible for her and everyone around her. Beyond simply peddling drugs, Coy is also involved with prostitution and associated turf wars, and he uses his daughter early on to help “send a message” to another pimp in the area. Coy wastes no time incorporating Nikki into his schemes, teaching her the importance of being the first to market with new “product”; though he keeps her awareness at an arm’s length, it isn’t long before she’s learned enough to start acting and making deals on her own.
Told over five parts with short, often less than half-page fractured thoughts masquerading as chapters, Morris carves a pint-sized weapon out of Nikki. Surrounded as she is by deadbeats and unsavouries of all sorts—not to mention a father who vacillates between pimp, rapist, murderer, and paranoid caregiver who tries, too little too late, to push his offspring to get an education (threatening to call the Department of Social Services on her)—Nikki is forced to grow up fast, understanding rather quickly on which side of “kill or be killed” she intends to stand.
The narrative’s unexpected strength is in its inability to linger on anything—life for Nikki appears to be entirely surface gloss and without consequence, nothing ever really impacting beneath her skin. It’s only when heroin is introduced into the story, and into Nikki’s mind, that we as readers start to see some of the more pressing fears and uncertainties she experiences as she and Coy slide further into fogginess and moral emaciation. Late in the tale, when Nikki tells someone she’s actually sixteen and not thirteen, the reader is forced to question whether she is simply lying in order to present a stronger, more experienced self, or if in the haze of drugs and violence in which she’s been living time has glided on by while her perception of reality has slipped quietly away.
Morris’s writing is harsh and broken but not staccato; the short, emotion-deprived chapters are not sharpened but blunt, striking unexpectedly and without concern. The novel itself feels belligerent, as if un-desiring of approval or acceptance. What results from this is a hard, uncomfortable narrative that doesn’t seek to shock but to unsettle by keeping the reader at the same level of detachment as the characters appear to be to one another. To this end, its final page hits like a body mutely thumping the pavement following a ten-storey fall—complete with all of the horror but none of the Hollywood fanfare.
Young God feels numbed, in some ways defeated by the inevitability of Nikki’s increasingly dark path. Morris presents Nikki’s fate without polemics, ethical grandstanding, or melodrama. It’s a novel I appreciate and respect more than I can say I enjoyed. It scalds in the moment, but like the cruelties enacted by its dangerous heroine, the pain does not linger far beyond the page—it’s merely a matter of running some cold water over the wound to see that the flesh has closed over again.