January 21, 2014

TURNING PAGES: Coaltown Jesus, by Ron Kortege

Ever since STONER & SPAZ, I've been a fan of this author's work, and when he made me cry reading poetry about baseball, of all things, he had me for good. Ron Koertge's work just shines, so finding his latest book as a Cybils nominee was no surprise.

The Cybils folk, however happy they were to see the nomination, found themselves slightly at a loss when it came to genre. Though the book was nominated elsewhere, it was moved to speculative fiction. I mean, it's got Jesus in it, and he talks. He doesn't do that really, right? So, it's like speculative, that he's really there, saying stuff, right? Or is this kid talking to himself, or delusional, or ...?

Eventually, the book was passed to another group, as Our Overlords determined that the main character's experience was real, for a given value of "real" in fiction, and that it wasn't speculative. Necessarily. We were left, those of us in the Panel 1 round of judging, with a distinct relief that it wasn't our call to make...

In the tradition of Cynthia Rylant's GOD WENT TO BEAUTY SCHOOL, this Green Light YA Read - to use Kelly Jenson's term - projects the uncontainable into the context of the ordinary -- and elevates it into something altogether "other" - and amazing. It is listed for grades 7-10, and I can see it being a dog-eared "read again" for many tweens and older-than-teens who have a spiritual sense, but maybe not any particular religion. Its beautifully hopeful ordinariness may offend some people -- more honestly, it will offend some people, probably the same folk who argued with Cynthia Rylant's interpretation of a God who went by Jim and painted nails for a living, and the ones who hate that one Joan Osborne song which will remain nameless (lest you blame me for the earworm it became after "Joan of Arcadia."). Readers who were raised with a more conservative faith may remain uneasy, not with the plot, but with a character. Is it right to make Jesus human? Is it right to make him wear tennis shoes, and hang out doing card tricks, and be excited about ice cream, candy bars, and dogs?

Just a thought for the uneasy Christian-religious folk: weren't you taught that the "being human" thing is already what Jesus did?


...Moving right along.

Walker Pointed
"This is Bissell House. Rooms up
And down both halls. Nurses' stations.
Rec room. Dining room. Pretty standard
Jesus nodded. "Nice-looking place.
It has a very cool vibe."
Walker whispered, "Nobody says vibe
"Oh, that's nice. Correct the King
of kings and Lord of lords."

Concerning Character: Walker's brother, seventeen-year-old Noah, has been dead now for two months, and some nights, he still hears his mother crying. It sucks. After weeks of nightmares and numbness, this is what pushes fourteen-year-old Walker over the edge, and he sends up a tortured prayer of sorts, asking whomever is up there to come and fix his mother's pain. And, Jesus comes... to Coaltown, Illinois. Walker is terrified - elated - and ...confused.

He's just not as advertised... not by the Sunday School stuff Walker remembers, anyway. He looks okay - sandals, beard, the whole robe getup - but he likes red high tops - size 11 - and is he supposed to tell such bad jokes? Isn't that kind of... irreverent? He answers questions with more questions sometimes, too, which pisses Walker off. And, why does he keep hanging out with Walker? Isn't his mom the one with all the sadness? That's who he's supposed to be fixing, after all.

In what can only be described as a gentle, gradual revelation - from walking the streets, hanging out with the old folks at his mother's nursing home, playing basketball in the park, having Brain Freezes at the Dairy Queen, and through endless conversations, readers see Walker - a kid who is brokenhearted, furious, and confused. Leaving aside The Big Questions of theology and dogma, Jesus is a friend, a funny, patient listener, gently encouraging Walker to sort through and share memories of Noah - the fun, despairing, loving, angry, abrasive, playful, brilliant, uncaring, talented, drug-abusing brother who he loved - whom they both loved - and find a way to love him, see him truly through his very human contradictions and complexities, forgive him, and finally, finally, begin to let go.

"...It seems like he was mad all the time."
Jesus nodded. "I know. He was mad when he prayed.
"Noah prayed?"
"Oh, yeah. One night out on Bethel Road.
He was by himself, and he got out of the car,
looked up at the sky and said, "Who am I,
anyway. Really, who the hell am I?"
"That doesn't sound like a prayer to me."
Jesus said, "Sure it was." He leaned and petted
Shadow, who let his tongue loll out in ecstasy.
Walker asked, "So, what did you do?"
"I loved him."
"That's all?"
Jesus caressed Shadow one more time.
He straightened up, and looked directly
at Walker.
"Dude," he said. "that's everything."

- pg. 76
WARNING: Reading this book may cause inexplicable feelings of "something in my eye" and blurred vision. Your mileage may vary. I cannot be blamed for the Joan Osborne song, you're the one singing it to yourself. There is a Coal City in Illinois. Jesus has been there.

My copy came courtesy of the publisher. You can find COALTOWN JESUS by Ron Koertge online, or at an independent bookstore near you!


Alex said...

I absolutely loved this book, but others who read it didn't quite get the whole thing or couldn't get pass being offended by the portrayal of Jesus. This Jesus was there and just was Walker needed, and isn't that what he is supposed to do for people?

tanita♥davis said...

@ Alex: I was surprised by how much I loved this book. It kind of amazes me how people can miss the point - Jesus was all about Walker, not about Great Mysteries Of Truth. He's more of a people person... which is a too-novel concept for some. Glad you loved it, too!