Were it not for my rather unnatural obsession as regards collecting all of the Penguin Classics, I may never have heard of The God Boy by New Zealand journalist, Ian Cross. Written in the late fifties, this debut novel falls somewhere between Salingerâs The Catcher In The Rye (which I am yet to read) and Doyleâs Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. I believe it is hailed as a classic in his home land - in much the same way Grassic Gibbonsâ Sunset Song is in Scotland â and forms (or at least once formed) part of the school curriculum â but donât quote me on that.
The story is told by thirteen year old Jimmy Sullivan who is recounting the events in his life two years previous when his world changed forever. His world back then was the coastal town of Raggleton where he lived with his parents and went to Catholic school. His elder sister, Molly, lived in Wellington. Jimmyâs day to day activities include going to school, hanging around with his friends, and talking with an elderly Raggleton resident (called Bloody Jack) down by the harbour. When not embroiled in such pursuits he turns his attention to the question of God.
Jimmy has a problem with God. While the sisters at school feed him all the usual nonsense, his interpretation is that God is a literal being. And, when he is told that God frowns upon bad behaviour by punishing those that sin, Jimmy believes that he is being reprimanded from up on high when the family life around him begins to disintegrate. His fatherâs a drunk, his mother has a secret abortion, and their disdain for each other grows throughout the novel. Jimmy, always thinking he is to blame, attributes their arguments to the new bike he begged for and received and even offers to give it back if that will stop the trouble.
Aside from such innocence, Jimmy has some methods for dealing with the strife in his household. He calls them his âprotection tricksâ and whenever his parents devolve into quarrel he finds solace in singing songs and plunging his hands into scalding hot water. His confusion around Catholic ritual is typically shown here in that, while he doesnât care for all that religious stuff, his songs sometimes include the Hail Mary.
All through The God Boy, Jimmyâs anger grows until one day he lashes out at God and finds a new mean streak (swearing at an old lady, throwing stones at a friend, smashing a window) which, when the novelâs end comes around, Jimmy believes is what he is being punished for until he realises that he is not to blame â heâs made all the effort and God hasnât even lifted a finger.
Like Doyleâs Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the narration by a child makes for interesting reading as you are forced to interpret what you are being told. Jimmy, of course, doesnât know what an abortion is but by reading the clues as he describes the scene (early in the novel) you get the gist of what is happening. His monologue is punctuated with local phrases that emphasise the setting and the inclusion of a few American phrases hint that Raggleton â at its remotest â is not safe from outside influence.
Overall, The God Boy is an enjoyable portrait of a family falling apart through a young boyâs eyes and for all his protests about how he doesnât care there is emotion within that allow you to see past his objections. I donât think itâs as engaging as Doyleâs Booker winner but its nevertheless a good enough quick read.