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Fundamentalist teenage wasteland

By Steve Almond
Globe Correspondent / February 14, 2010

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If you think you had a rough time in high school, consider the plight of Gabe Dagsland, hero of Tony DuShane’s debut novel, “Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk.’’ As a Jehovah’s Witness, he’s not allowed to celebrate holidays. He can’t participate in extracurricular activities. The mildest dabbling in sex, drugs, or rock and roll - the bread and butter of a modern adolescence - is grounds for ostracization.

Oh, and here’s what happens when you bring home a report card filled with A’s and B’s: “Mom reassured me that since Armageddon would be here before I got out of high school, there was no need to engage more than necessary in worldly activities.’’

It will go without saying that Gabe is incredibly horny and that far too much time is spent detailing his frustrations. Nonetheless, his story offers a compelling fictional peek inside a community of fundamentalist believers. And the more we learn, the darker DuShane’s version of the movement appears.

“We all picked the houses we wanted to live in after God killed all the non-Jehovah’s Witnesses at Armageddon,’’ Gabe explains. “If someone was mean to us when we were preaching, we were secretly glad, especially if it was a rich area with big houses. We’d be able to move into their house, since they’d disregarded our attempt at saving them, and live in paradise.’’

Christian charity, anyone?

Gabe’s situation is particularly dire, because his father is a church elder, and his mother is both passive and depressed. Growing up in a city south of San Francisco, he tries to toe the line for Jehovah, while shielding his religious identity from friends at school.

All teenagers lead double lives, of course, but most of them aren’t forced to develop what Gabe calls the mediocre knock. “I knocked softly enough for no one to hear me inside the house, but loudly enough not to raise suspicion that I really wanted to avoid talking to people about the Bible on some mornings, especially when I preached in an area where I knew a few of my school friends lived.’’

Gabe is desperate to escape and terrified of the damnation that might await. The best moments here are charged with the danger of this conflict, as when he winds up flirting with a fellow Witness at a wedding.

“Then she put her head on my shoulder for the rest of the extended wedding-party dance, and I saw a movie of my future filled with a fast-food-craving wife and living with her parents in their garage in Vacaville while I slaved fifty hours a week as a floor cleaner or at some other job so we could have benefits.’’

Like any good narrator, Gabe is too smart for his prospects. He knows the quiet life of desperation that awaits him if he doesn’t break from the church. And so he does, amid much angst, with the somewhat predictable help of Beat literature, punk rock, and a sexually rebellious female cousin.

In terms of narrative arc, “Confessions’’ is a standard-issue bildungsroman, one sometimes marred by overeager prose. DuShane also has trouble managing tone. Gabe veers from comic riffing to abrupt moments of tragedy that never feel quite realized. All that being said, the book remains gripping as a parable of fundamentalism.

Gabe can’t manage his own raging libido, but he’s got a gimlet eye when it comes to his father’s fanaticism: “I wondered what Dad felt like choosing the future of all those people, making those confidential phone calls, extracting intimate details from ‘sinners’ . . . and reading them scriptures from the Bible showing that Satan was directly related to every action, every ounce of pleasure they’d taken from that horrific moment when they’d touch the wrong person in the wrong place.’’

The scene in which church elders interrogate Gabe about his transgressions is positively chilling. He is quizzed about every conceivable action, impulse, and body part - an allegedly moral inquiry that quickly devolves into sadistic sexual rubbernecking.

DuShane also nails the sense of fear and paranoia that grips younger members of his congregation. It’s like having the Stasi crash your school dance.

But what makes “Confessions’’ especially relevant today is the recent popularization of the Jehovah’s eschatology. They believe that we are in the last days, and only 144,000 true believers will survive Armageddon and get to live in paradise.

If that plotline sounds familiar, consider the “Left Behind’’ series, which has sold 65 million copies, and counting, by presenting a pulp version of a not altogether dissimilar end-of-days scenario. Opinion polls show that a great many of our citizens believe mankind will meet such an end. There appears to be an entire Armageddon industry devoted to making money off this fear.

DuShane’s curious little novel left me with the unsettling sense that the Jehovah’s Witnesses may be more in sync with American reading habits than I am.

Random House will publish Steve Almond’s new book, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,’’ in April.

CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE JESUS JERK
By Tony DuShane
Soft Skull Press, 224pp., $14.95