Brandon Tietz’s new novel Good Sex, Great Prayers is a dark and dirty delight, a small town horror story in the vein of Stephen King but bolstered with an elegant, vagrant voice all its own.
Be warned: This novel will forever change the way you look at the words “chili dog.” Unless you already viewed those two words as completely terrifying, in which case, congratulations, what the hell is wrong with you?
This book also explains what happened to centaurs. No, seriously. It does. And this book doesn’t even have anything to do with centaurs. It’s just good like that.
What Good Sex, Great Prayers does have something to do with is Father Johnstone, a goodhearted small town pastor who’s beginning to lose his flock of the faithful in the town of Pratt due to his increasingly strange behavior. Johnstone has no idea what’s happening to him but Pratt’s newest resident, Madeline Paige, seems to know exactly what’s behind his drastic change in character. And what she reveals to him is enough to rattle not only the pastor’s faith but also his preconceived notions of what is and what isn’t possible.
What’s refreshing about this novel is that despite the seeming irreverence in the title and the book half jokingly being referred to as Christian Erotica in some blurbs, it treats its devout protagonists and their faiths with respect. Not that this book by any means feels like an endorsement of Christianity or any other faith, but instead of going for the low hanging fruit of making fun of people and their belief systems it instead challenges the ideas core to those beliefs and in turn challenges characters like Father Johnstone to accept or reject a wider view of the world.
Tietz does all this with his solid characterization. I mentioned Stephen King earlier, and besides his penchant for small town politics and small town as microcosm or allegory for civilization at large, another useful device Tietz employs here that the best of King’s work also exhibits is the feeling of authentic, fully fleshed out characters.
The town of Pratt lives and breathes, all of its denizens, even the ones that make only a minor appearance, feel like people who have lives outside these pages. This is a remarkable feat and something that Tietz should be proud of. This immersive approach also carries over to the book’s characters that live outside Pratt.
The novel’s ongoing plot featuring Johnstone and Madeline’s conflicting faiths and the conspiracy behind the pastor’s recent bizarre behavior is interrupted ever so often with some brief, often vicious interludes. These feature the exploits of two other men of faith, after a fashion, the truck-stop, hate spewing preacher Billy Burke and the mysterious, almost alien-like man named Pollux.
Much of the horror in Good Sex, Great Prayers comes from these interludes. While the Billy Burke chapters function more as a revulsion of and study in religious fanaticism and good old-fashioned, monstrous demagoguery, the other chapters revolving around Pollux are even more unnerving for the opposite reason. The Billy Burke chapters, where he proudly instructs his followers on the proper way to beat the shit out of hookers or gays (all for the Lord, natch) will get under your skin because of how real, and sadly, ordinary this kind of evil and prejudice is, the chapters with Pollux, a man taken to experimenting with religious accouterment and prostitutes in Las Vegas, are chilling because of how far beyond the norm they go.
We don’t know much about Pollux, at least at first, but what we quickly come to understand by the detached, methodical severity of his actions and the weirdly removed tone of his voice, is that Pollux is someone who wasn’t brought up in what we’d deem normal society and therefore, does not adhere to its rules. This is illustrated in the following excerpt from Pollux where he explains an early miscommunication he had with one of his victims.
“ ‘Eating out’ does not literally mean to bite, chew, and swallow. I made that mistake some years ago and have since learned it’s the slang vernacular for oral stimulation.”
Of course the stories of Pollux and Billy Burke eventually tie-in with Johnstone and Madeline’s troubles but I leave it up to you to discover just how. Which is half the fun of this book. Seeing how all the pieces will finally fit.
This is Brandon Tietz’s second novel but with its confident, mostly unadorned voice, you could think it’s his fourth or fifth. Because this is knockout storytelling. It knows when to dazzle but it knows when to relent as well. When to relax and invite you back in and ultimately, it knows how to lean in for a kiss before tearing your face clean off. It’s one of the most enjoyable and effortlessly seductive books I’ve read in quite some time.
Brandon Tietz’s debut novel Out of Touch was released back in 2008, now 6 years later, his follow-up, Good Sex, Great Prayers reads like an author fully coming into his own, finding that his faith in his own craft has been rewarded.
As Father Johnstone will attest, faith is a tenuous thing. It has to be earned and maintained. With his latest, Tietz has earned my faith as a reader, read this book and he just might earn yours too. I’ll give Tietz the highest compliment I can give an author: I want to read whatever he does next because I believe it will be worth my time.
Can you think of anything better than faith being rewarded?
How ’bout a chili dog?
(Good Sex, Great Prayers is published by Perfect Edge Books and you can purchase it at Amazon.)