The First Time Rats Saw God


Rats Saw God - Rob Thomas

Rob Thomas is known to me first and foremost as the creator of Veronica Mars and its titular heroine, one of my favorite television shows and characters. If I had to choose one character that I wished were real, it would be Veronica. That’s saying a lot; I love countless fictional characters to distraction.


A highlight of the show is Veronica’s caustic wit. Other characters are funny (e.g. Logan, Mac), but there’s something about a tiny, blonde, teenage girl who used to be on the pep squad cutting people down to size with a sharp tongue (or bantering with her father, friends, or boyfriends)–after suffering the murder of her best friend, the abandonment of her mother, the destruction of her father’s reputation, and rape–that is unique and paradoxically pleasing for a female character especially.


Rats Saw God and its protagonist, Steve York, display the same jaded wit, and it’s the best feature of the book. Before VM, Thomas wrote YA novels, and his grasp of high school and teenage life is strong. He taught high school journalism, and his experience is evident.


Like Veronica, Steve has recently gone through some shit (less serious than Veronica, but just as devastating, and, as I like to say, suffering is not a competition). The conceit of the book is that in the present, Steve is doing horribly; he’s a stoner flunking out despite obvious intelligence and past academic success. He is on the verge of not graduating and must somehow make up his English credit. His guidance counselor asks him to write 100 pages (unthinkable for a high schooler–hell, for an undergrad), in chunks each week, of anything he likes. Steve complies, so the flashbacks to how Steve got where he is take the form of his first person writing.


The back-and-forth between present and past comes in quick bites, generally. We’re to understand that writing is helping Steve move on from what happened back in Houston (I won’t spoil what that is, but from the beginning it’s clear it has to do with his then girlfriend, Dub, and his father, whom Steve refers to as “the astronaut,” after his famous profession). The progression wasn’t always clear to me (like how and why Steve became interested in another girl in the present), and I found myself more engaged by the past. When the source of Steve’s heartbreak is revealed, it’s upsetting, but given the nature of the shock, it feels unexplored. Steve and Dub never deal with each other significantly face-to-face either. While this makes sense given Steve’s character especially, it still left me hanging. I could’ve used another 50 pages.


If you’re a VM fan, you’ll recognize the book’s title (in the book’s context, it’s part of the coveted yearbook photo for Steve’s extracurricular, GOD–Grace Order of Dadaists), referenced in season two. You’ll also recognize the name of Steve’s girlfriend, Wanda Varner, who goes by “Dub,” from a season one episode in which that Wanda ran for student president but lost and also turned out to be a snitch. She’s not the most trustworthy here either, but that doesn’t mean you don’t like her until the end.


Thomas’s protagonists tend to be whip-smart and jaded. For me, this is ultimately much more interesting when that character is a girl.

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The First Time Rats Saw God