A couple of weeks ago I attended the Austin Teen Book Fair, where I picked up Rats Saw God after hearing the author speak on a panel. Set in the mid-1990s in Houston and San Diego, the story follows a high-school senior, Steve York, a smart young man who’s busy smoking weed and destroying his academic career. He’s headed for summer school and late graduation until the school’s academic counselor offers him a break: Write a 100-page paper, to be turned in directly to the counselor, and Steve could get the extra credit needed to finish on time.

Not surprisingly, Steve accepts the offer. Steve’s paper is the story of himself—how he got to the place where he was when the counselor found him. The book alternates between the narrative of Steve’s life in Houston, where he spent his first three years of high school, and his senior year in San Diego. The parallel plots show us, in lockstep, how he got into a state of deep self-neglect and how he manages to resurface.

The book is full of the sharp sarcasm and whatever attitude that society often associates with teenage boys. But Steve isn’t just a flawed, hostile kid. He’s a complex character with struggles the reader can relate to. In the course of his paper, he exposes his vulnerabilities and explores his mistakes, which makes the assignment exactly the exercise in learning that the academic counselor was hoping for.

NOTE: The back cover of my edition says that this book is for ages 12 and up, but there is a lot about underage drinking and use of marijuana. There is also an explicit sex scene.