Rating: B+/ Not as crudely irreverent as the title might suggest, The Dirty Parts of the Bible is the surprisingly touching and sweet story of Tobias Henry, the nineteen-year-old sexually frustrated son of a born-again Baptist preacher. Struggling with his sexual urges and skeptical of his father’s teachings, Tobias is sent out on a journey to his uncle’s farm in Glen Rose, Michigan after his dad suffers a bizarre accident and is temporarily blinded. Tobias’ goal is to uncover a large sum of money that his dad hid in a well on his family property years ago.
It being the time of the Great Depression and all, money is hard to come by, and Tobias expects to collect the fortune and be in and out of the property within a couple of days. Little does he expect his trip to turn out to be the adventure of a lifetime. Joined by the half-mad, philosophizing hobo Craw and the quick-witted Sarah, who believes to be the victim of a curse that keeps killing all her boyfriends, Tobias finds himself making the transition from boy to man, and as he comes of age he begins to see the grey areas between his father Malachi’s frustratingly black and white beliefs.
Judging from the title, I expected this book to take a lot more cheap potshots at religion than it actually did. What I got was a funny, tender, and surprisingly fair-minded story with offbeat and appealing characters. It’s hard to pull off characters that are markedly quirky and offbeat without coming off as precious or taking away the qualities that made them seem plausible in the first place. Sam Torode carefully walked the line between being zany and being too zany, and his characters, surprisingly, ring true.
As a agnostic who liked to argue with my Bible studies teacher as a kid and rebuff just about everything she said with “But that doesn’t make sense,” I got a kick out of Tobias’ character. His narration is funny, wry, and hugely appealing. I felt that some of his narrative and choice of metaphors would have felt insipid and corny in another book, but even the cheesier statements he made fit his character. His uncanny mix of wisdom and naivete made him a wonderful protagonist.
Although there are some dark themes afoot and the subject of the Great Depression is, well, depressing, The Dirty Parts of the Bible never allows itself to get too dark. The characters often have exceedingly difficult lives but as a general rule they don’t allow themselves to become too helpless. I will say that I thought things were perhaps wrapped up too neatly in the end, with things going overwhelmingly right for almost every character in the book, but it works better than you might think due to the novel feeling more like a fairy tale of sorts than cut-and-dry historical fiction.
I also questioned the touch of the paranormal Torode added to the story; putting traces of the supernatural in an otherwise not overly fantastical work of historical fiction felt a little jarring to me. Craw, the hobo, could be preachy, especially considering his overall goofy and casually crude demeanor, but overall I enjoyed his character. The setting of Depression-era Texas was extremely well-done, and the prose was rich with period detail without falling into the dreaded trap of info-dumping.
Themes of prejudice and poverty were played down somewhat so the book could stay light and fun without becoming too bleak. I enjoyed every page of it’s humor and zaniness, and found it to be quite the page-turner. It’s actually one of the few books I’ve read that I’d like to see a sequel to; the novel had a fairly good sense of closure but I’d legitimately like to see what happens to the characters next. I will warn potential readers that this book is sexually frank, and contains references to wet dreams, masturbation, prostitution, etc., etc.
But it’s not handled in an overly dirty or crude way. The main character is a naïve kid with raging hormones and a avid interest in the female body, but I didn’t feel that the protagonist’s intentions were bad or that the female characters were particularly objectified. I didn’t find The Dirty Parts of the Bible to be laugh-out-loud funny, as a general rule, but I found it to be consistently witty and clever. I enjoyed the characters and their individual dramas, as well as how they interacted with each other.
This is a book that is worth buying online if you can’t find it at the library. Filled with rich characters and witty dialogue, it is a book that you might find yourself reading long into the night. I generally gravitate to darker stuff than this, but The Dirty Parts of the Bible gave me a welcome reprieve from books about dysfunctional families and child abuse that I didn’t even know I needed. It proves that a novel can be both light-hearted and intelligent, and that the two are not mutually exclusive. If you aren’t the kind of person who’s particularly sensitive about religion being used for comedy, I think you’ll love this book as much as I did.