Themes and Characters
In the first chapter of Rats Saw God, Steve is high. Asked by the guidance counselor if he resents his father, Steve replies, "I don't anything him." By the last chapter, Steve has arrived at his new college home in Washington (where his father was raised). He calls his dad to tell him he has arrived "safe and sound." He also stops in his father's hometown to pay tribute to his dad, whom he has disrespected most of his teen years. Steve's coming-of-age through his teen years is the guts and the glory of Rats Saw God. The unique structure of the book, however, allows readers to watch Steve's character develop in opposite directions. In Houston he starts off "good" then is betrayed and starts his fall; when he arrives in San Diego, he is "at bottom" but starts putting his life back together. In each location, however, he is struggling to make the transition from boy to man, and all the expectations such a transformation brings with it.
In Steve, Thomas has created a real teenage boy. He has captured the intensity and essence of adolescence with a voice so solid, so sure, and yet so heartbreakingly honest. It is a voice that, in the words of Joel Shoemaker, is "so hip and cool and strong it hurts." It is not just a matter that Thomas gets the outward details right, although he does. He manages to capture the pop culture details and, especially in Steve, the essence of adolescence. The irony, the moodiness, the glib remarks, and the smart-aleck comments are the core stuff that makes most teenagers twist and turn. Unlike many authors of books for teens, Thomas does not believe that if his characters are wearing the rights shoes and listening to the right band, they will emerge as real young adults.
But it is more than that, much more. Thomas's fiction is ultimately about honesty, about not pulling punches, about depicting teens who think about sex, use drugs, and curse. Thus, honesty is both a theme of the book and a style choice. A prime example of this honesty is found in the language in the book. The language in Rats Saw God certainly is not rated G. Obscenities are used regularly, not reserved for special occasions. Since books are words and words demonstrate the language in action, perhaps a book for teens should not or would not include vulgarities. But when left without adults, lots—not all, maybe not even a majority—but lots of kids curse. It just part of the outland: if you have a teen boy getting upset about something, he is not going to yell out "oh shoot" or to tell someone off. He is not going to say, "forget you." From Steve's cocky defiance at the start of the book, to his earlier nervousness about sex and his final acceptance, Thomas honestly portrays the essence of adolescence.
Amazingly, Thomas was able to do this even though Steve's experiences are not based on his own high school years. He told Joel Shoemaker:
I purposely made Steve York my opposite. First of all, Steve was, and possibly is, much smarter than me. He would have loathed me. I dug high school. I was a jock. I was involved in all sorts of clubs and activities. I got along terrifically with my parents. I didn't drink or smoke.
In this book, Steve jokes that jocks are one-eyed monsters. Thomas perhaps comes to life in some of the other characters, such as Doug with his passion for music (his band covers Clash songs just as Thomas did with his band) and Sarah with her good grades and occasional crusades. Just as Thomas and Sarah find identity by becoming joiners, Steve and Doug find identity through accepting each other, as well as other school outcasts.
GOD becomes a group for the disenfranchised. Most join, Steve presumes, "for their own wiseass reasons." At one point, Steve gives a rundown of each member of GOD describing them physically and guessing at their reasons for joining the group. Most, he figures, join because they do not really fit in anywhere else. Like most great young adult novels, Rats Saw God concerns itself with the search for acceptance and...
(The entire section is 1,643 words.)