Schoolrooms in California and Texas are the major settings for Rats Saw God. Given Thomas's teaching experience, that is not surprising. The scenes in California pale in comparison, though. The high school there never takes on a character like Grace High in Texas, and San Diego never seems to matter much to Steve. But the Clear Lake setting, like the events that happen there, shape Steve. Clear Lake (a suburb of Houston where the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is based) is described as almost a paradise: a "world of sports cars, designer clothes, fifteen acre malls, million-dollar homes . . . and private tennis coaches." It is, in short, everything that Steve rejects. He chooses an old El Camino as his vehicle, dresses like a pirate, avoids both the mall and mall culture, and casts off all the advantages of this lifestyle. Just as he rejects everything his father wants him to be, Steve rejects everything Clear Lake offers.
He also deliberately rejects the conformity and normalcy of Grace High School. With his best friend Doug, he cofounds the club GOD (Grace Order of Dadaists) and, with his flippant remarks and attitudes, Steve chooses not to fit in. He wants to be an iconoclast; in his words, to be "constantly looking for ways to exist outside the mainstream." He rejects being a good student citizen in any traditional sense. Much to his father's annoyance, he refuses to participate in sports or even care about them. What better place to be a nonconformist than in a large suburban high school which thrives on conventionality and ritual? Which, as Dub notes, makes Grace High School the perfect place for the Dadaists to make trouble. Ironically, the first meeting of GOD takes place at a Pizza Hut, a dull corporate brand-name teen hangout. Most of the key scenes in Rats Saw God take place against similar backdrops of the "events" of high school life—club sign-up day, homecoming parade and dance, talent show, parties, etc. Steve, Doug, and Dub are willing to participate in such rituals, while mocking them. By mocking them, they can keep a distance. If they pretend not to care, then it does not matter if they fail or do not fit in. This mocking distance plays into the central theme of Rats Saw God: living up to expectations.
The most striking element about Rats Saw God is its unusual structure: the book within- the-book approach. Rather than telling the story in straight chronological order, Thomas has decided to cut back and forth between the present and the past. In some ways, the book is constructed like a mystery novel. The "crime" is what happened to Steve in Houston. The flashbacks are the clues. In writing about Rats Saw God, Richard Peck argued that a "straight narrative line would have diminished cause and effect, actions and their consequences." Moreover, this structure sets up a series of contrasts between Steve's life in California and his life in Houston. Each life has the same elements: a parent, a girlfriend, a school setting, a supportive faculty member, a set of friends, but Steve is not the same person. Finally, the structure which gives so much weight to Steve's diary entries allow Thomas's greatest gift as a writer—his authentic voice—to shine through.
Voice is critical to the novel. Because the story is told in first person, readers are hearing and seeing the world through Steve's ears and eyes. It is a voice, which, reviewer Julie Hudson commented, "screams 'read me now while I am hot' and hot it is. Steve and his friends are real, not just an idea of what kids are like." From the adolescent humor to the pop culture references to the overall tone of the book, Thomas has captured the essence of being a teenager in the 1990's. Despite Steve's marijuana use, the book is not lethargic; in fact it crackles with energy. The energy is often built through conflict as Steve bounces up against walls everywhere, but in particular at home with this father and at school with the "straight" kids. Steve's take on...
(The entire section is 2,285 words.)