25 Nov 2010

Author's debut novel, Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, reflects his teen years as a Jehovah's Witness

San Francisco Chronicle - March 2, 2010

Author's experience informs story of conflicted youth

Evan Karp, Special to The Chronicle

The main character in San Francisco author Tony DuShane's debut novel "Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk" started out as the author himself but eventually, as DuShane puts it, "he became his own dude."

At home in the aptly named Cafe La Boheme, where he wrote large parts of the novel, DuShane, 40, wears a fedora and thick black-framed glasses, a combination that sits well above his bushy mustache and big goatee.

When he speaks, the soft tone of his voice is surprising, almost incongruous. One gets the vague feeling that he's had some tough times and that, for the most part, he's put them behind him. There's something instantly likable about Tony DuShane.

DuShane is happy to talk about "Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk" (Soft Skull Press; 214 pages; $14.95), even if it wasn't easy digging into episodes of his own past to write the book. The story - a coming-of-age yarn that pits the strict religious mentality of the Jehovah's Witnesses against the curious penchants of your average teenager - has been long in the making.

The book's young hero, Gabe, is convinced God will kill him at Armageddon for masturbating. His father, a community elder, is a pious mechanic who works tirelessly to show the world what a Jehovah's Witness is truly made of and sets a staid example of the kind of person Gabe is supposed to be: an emblem of the community and even an archetype of righteousness.

But Gabe is just beginning to notice girls, and his desire to understand these feelings begins to overpower the admiration and allegiance he has for his father and their community values.

A similar conflict nearly consumed DuShane as a child. When he was Gabe's age, growing up in Millbrae, he would eagerly return from the mandatory religious meetings and plug his headphones into KPFA to sneak secret listens to "Maximum Rock & Roll."

Punk rock catharsis

At a time when he was prohibited from expressing his feelings and acting on them, the "pure anger and pure rage" of punk rock provided DuShane his first dose of worldly catharsis.

Unlike Gabe, however, who boldly starts saving for Paris at the end of high school, DuShane didn't "fade out" (or become inactive) from the community until his early 20s. Although everything he could understand was pulling him into the secular world and he longed to embrace it, the constant threat of damnation petrified DuShane. He made an attempt to go to college, but when the elders insisted he drop out, he quit school.

Finally, and still ignorant of most everything worldly, DuShane marched into KFJC radio in Los Altos Hills and learned how to do his own radio show.

Until now, he hasn't looked back.

His gig on college radio blossomed into "Drinks With Tony," a show for which he interviews musicians, writers, actors and directors (including the likes of Steve Buscemi, Miranda July, Nick Cave and Chuck Palahniuk); he founded and still edits Cherry Bleeds, an online literary magazine "published with blood" since 2000; his SFGate column, "Off the Record," covers the Bay Area music scene; and he contributes regularly to many other publications, including the Nervous Breakdown. Once DuShane followed his passions, in other words, they established their own communities.

"Confessions" represents DuShane coming to terms with his experience and the decision he made to follow the voices he heard in his headphones and in his heart. The book has already caused DuShane's mailbox to fill with impassioned letters, both from ex-Witnesses who feel vindicated and from current believers who feel outraged and offended.

Painful process

Indeed, the writing was sometimes a painful process for DuShane, who had to find a perspective that he'd forced himself to leave behind.

"The problem is most ex-Jehovah's Witness books out there are like 'woe is me' memoirs, which connect with other ex-Jehovah's Witnesses. And I didn't want that. ... You gotta show kind of the good, too. You gotta understand why, you know. You can't just sit there and cry about 'Oh, I didn't go to college because I was a Jehovah's Witness.' And then not say why were you drawn in. And I hope to show the reason why Gabe was drawn in, you know. There was very little of that. He is very honest in his being drawn in."

While DuShane, who is divorced and lives in the Mission, confronts these weighty issues with that same kind of emotional honesty, he presents them in a remarkably comic tone that could only be possible with the right amount of distance and personal maturation.

He may have been, like Gabe, knocking on doors while his friends went to birthday parties, but DuShane isn't preaching anymore. He has spent considerable time now looking through both sides of the peephole.

"I wanted not only to legitimize my own experience, but to show people, you know, a Jehovah's Witness comes to your door, there's a complexity to them that you don't know about. That they could be there for the wrong reasons, you know. They could be a teenager at your door, just like Gabe. ... So the main thing was bringing understanding to the community and then to myself."

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