In a simply written, swift-moving narrative that won the 2004 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Pete Hautman's Godless explores the nature of religion, belief, power, obsession and corruption. This is heady stuff for a short, young adult novel, but Hautman uses humor and snappy dialogue to leaven his weighty plot.
Teenager Jason Bock has started a new religion. He and his followers worship the Ten-legged One and call themselves Chutengodians, a word created out of Church of the Ten-legged God. Their god is the local water tower.
Why not worship a water tower? Jason reasons. What's more important to the life of the town? What is a more essential compound than water? Chutengodians have an immediate feeling of power and grace when they climb the tower and look down upon creation the lights of the town, the glow of the horizon, the night sky all around.
What starts as a whacko idea gathers momentum. A new religion calls for a bible, commandments, a High Priest, a Grand Kahuna, a Keeper of the Sacred Text and devotees. But when local bully Henry Stagg is admitted into the inner circle of the Chutengodians, the seeds of dissension are sown and the potential for evil unleashed. Hautman's funny interludes include Jason's fumbling phone conversation with the beautiful Magda, where Jason, leader of the religion, is reduced to Neanderthal grunts and silences. I'm glad I'm not trying to have a conversation with me, he thinks. It must be boring as hell. A late-night swim in the water tower, a near-fatal fall, arrests and a schism within the church shake up the members, and readers are left to wonder at the appeal of such an unlikely organization. What does each member get out of belonging to it? For Jason, it's the chance to be a leader. For Henry, it's an insidious opportunity for power. For Magda, it's an attraction to tough-guy Henry. By novel's end, Jason has changed only in an envy of other people's beliefs. I have a religion, but I have no faith, he says. Maybe one day I'll find a deity I can believe in. Until then, my god is made of steel and rust.