Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas, captures the timeless struggle of adolescence. Unlike similar modern novels, this one creates 3D teen characters. None of them feel like caricatures of teenage behavior and attitudes. Their raw and realness matches those of your friends, family and neighbors. Rats Saw God’s authenticity transcends age limits.
Steve York’s senior year consists of smoking pot and barely passing classes. To graduate, he must write a 100-page essay. His essay letters unfolds the funny and heartbreaking adventures of his former group G.O.D (Grace Order of Dadaists), and his relationship with former girlfriend Dub. Steve’s essayistic journey reawakens the part of himself that enjoys life. And he begins to live again. Overall, Rats Saw God is one of the best young-adult novels out there. It effortlessly portrays many of the struggles of growing up, but it keeps the balance between being funny and tragic.
The only negative element of Rats Saw God is its predictability. The biggest turn of events in the novel can be predicted even by the most distracted readers. However, this flaw doesn’t detract from the many glaring assets of Rats Saw God.
The theme of fantasy vs. reality expresses an important truth about teenagers. As extremist, teens often see the world as a polarizing place. It’s either a complete hellhole or heaven on earth.
Steve experiences both degrees of these extremes. In his life in Houston, Texas, he’s naïve and hopeful. The world offers him so much. So when he discovers life is not perfect, he crumbles. The too pessimistic California version of Steve shuts everyone out. He views the world as too painful and people as too damaging to care for. It’s only through looking at his old life does he realize the negative effects of this attitude.
In the book, the reveal of Kurt Cobain’s death also impacts this theme. As a worshipped figure by teens, they idolize his life and him. Nevertheless, Cobain committed suicide, which by definition implies he was unhappy with certain parts of his life. The fantasies teens have about Cobain’s life most likely did not match his reality.
Apathy is another important subject of Rats Saw God. Leader of G.O.D, Doug, feels indifferent towards the high school experience. Only because of a bet with his father does he create G.O.D. However, the group forces him and the other members to care about each other, high school and G.O.D.
Steve’s mirroring his father’s apathetic behavior also establishes this important theme. Steve judges his astronaut father for lack of real emotions, for never being the man Steve felt he should be. But when Steve’s sister, Sarah, accuses him of doing the same thing, Steve’s reflects on his father and himself. He realizes that the man he spent years hating is the same man he’s becoming. He must change.
Young Adult novels have been a favorite of mine all my life. However, the last couple of years, I find myself struggling to enjoy them. As a teen, I could relate to these characters more: they were me. But as an adult, many of these books don’t translate well to my new life perspective. Also, unfortunately, being an English major in college has made me a slight book snob. If a novel doesn’t inspire or challenge me, I do not connect with it.
Nevertheless, Rats Saw God is one of those rare novels that made me reflect on my teen days. There have only been a couple other YA novels that I’ve read recently to do this. Rats Saw God has been the most successful of these novels. Not necessarily for being a flawless literary work, but for feeling honest in its depiction of youth. The lens on Steve shows him as someone just as screwed up as the other characters in the novel.
Another of the many things I enjoyed about Rats Saw God was showing how self-centered most teens can be, but without necessarily making that a bad thing. It’s more of a fact that shapes their perception of the world. Steve took awhile to look pass what Dub did to him, and look at what he did to Dub, and what Dub’s issues were that led to their breakup.
Thomas did a respectable job by not making Dub the monster. This is a problem too many male novelist face. They create an unbelievable female lead or an unforgivable one. Dub felt just as human as Steve, if not more.
Rats Saw God captures the struggle of being too young to realize pain often defines our lives. While also being too young to realize pain’s temporary status. Rats Saw God deserves ranking in the canon of great Young Adult novels. It needs more recognition for its quiet brilliance. 7.7/10