Let’s get this out of the way. The book is written in the second person. Yes, the book is all about you. (The second paragraph starts “You’re pedaling home.” Yes, like that). Some people object to this. It didn’t really bother me.
The book is nominally a sequel to his novel Dogland. I say “nominally” because while the fantasy in that book is so subtle you could easily miss it, this book takes a left turn into deep fantasy territory pretty early on. I think it’s better to think of them as completely separate books. I’m a little worried about rereading Dogland after reading Gospel. It’s definitely going to color it a little (pun totally not intended).
But let’s talk about this book. Christopher Nix is a rebellious teenager in 1969. He’s a hippie wannabe. He has run-ins with rednecks. He meets a girl. He has a strangely distant relationship with his family. One day he finds out that a benefactor will pay for him to go to an exclusive prep school and he decides to go. That decision makes a mind-boggling change in Chris’s life and turns the book into something completely different. Later on some other weird stuff happens that leads to a story within the story and it is this section that gives the book its title.
All very vague, but enough that I can talk about the book without spoiling it too much, I think. The book is about class. As in “class struggle” or “class war”. This subject matter will come as no shock to anyone familiar with Shetterly’s non-fiction writing. Shetterly thinks it’s an important subject and should be talked about more. I don’t disagree, but that motivation is too visible in this book. It feels preachy. No surprise for a book with “Gospel” in the title, I suppose. That gospel section of the book is a fictional lost gospel story with another take on the whole New Testament story. Preachy.
I can almost forgive the preachiness since he’s attempting some interesting narrative tricks to get his message across (beyond just the second person thing). The book is repeatedly surprising in the way that it steers away from cliched solutions to problems (never mind that it has to get into cliched situations to be able to get out of them in novel ways). I wish I could read the book with a younger mind. I think I would have liked it better if I’d read it when I was less of a curmudgeon.
Note that if you decide to read it you might want to know that Shetterly has already revised it, adding a new last line.