With her first novel, Wilkes County native Katherine Faw Morris turns to home

Katherine Faw Morris grew up in Wilkesboro, a brainy, punk-obsessed teenager miscast in a culture shaped by moonshine and NASCAR. “The whole time I was living there,” she says, “I just wanted to leave.”

And so she did, fleeing to New York University after high school. But Wilkes County never left her. The place, though not named, permeates her new novel, “Young God,” a sharp debut that publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux touts as a mix of Southern rural decay and urban punk.

Morris sets her spare story in an impoverished world of black tar heroin, teenage prostitutes and occasional murders requiring body disposal. It’s sure to thrill some readers. It’s also likely to repel others.

Either way, this dark novel makes one wonder about the 30-year-old author who so vividly depicts her protagonist, a 13-year-old drug dealer named Nikki. As a literary magazine asked Morris recently: “Just to get the burning question out of the way: Did you once do or deal a lot of drugs?”

You wouldn’t think so if you saw Katherine Marie Faw in the 2001 Wilkes Central High yearbook. She’s the only female on the Quiz Bowl team. Voted “most scholarly” by her peers. A cute, baby-faced cheerleader, for heaven’s sake.

But the yearbook doesn’t tell all. Though her dad sold insurance and she grew up middle class, Morris had what she calls a “whole other life.”

“I spent a lot of my teenaged life hanging out in trailers,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband and two pit bulls. In high school, she loved cocaine, she says, and she knew dealers, but never sold. “Though I think I’d be pretty good at it,” she told a British literary magazine.

Moonshine and fast cars

Morris, who uses the word “gangster” when she explains Wilkes County to Northern friends, isn’t the first to write about the place. It was home to Tom Dooley, whose hanging inspired a famous folk song. It’s also the setting for Tom Wolfe’s 1965 Esquire profile of NASCAR’s Junior Johnson, who got his start as a whiskey runner.

The county, about 80 miles northwest of Charlotte, was known as the moonshine capital of America. Distribution was handled by men who outran revenuers in hopped-up cars. Some drivers helped birth stock-car racing, as they barreled around North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Morris populates “Young God” with images of the county – the frothy river rapids that tumble into a swimming hole, the storefront churches that split off from the brick churches, the tar highway that leads to town, past “an empty building where a gun-and-pawn used to be.”

Her relatives can trace Faws to the 1700s in Wilkes County, which is why Morris grew up surrounded by people she says looked like her. She found it suffocating.

And so, from the time she could read, Morris spent hours engrossed in the family’s set of World Books, searching for a city that better suited her.

By high school, she knew she belonged in New York, and that punk rock, with its disaffected rebellion, was her music. She became obsessed with “Please Kill Me,” an oral history of the 1970s New York punk scene. She made her own punk-rock clothing, taking a black Sharpie to white T-shirts and covering them with song lyrics and writing.

“I had no one to talk to about it. I was always kind of weird.” she says. Even so, she had mainstream friends, though they regarded her as the “strange, arty one.”

Morris also impressed her teachers. “I actually kept the folder of her writing,” says Uwe Ehrlich, who teaches creative writing at Wilkes Central High. “I’ve done that with three students in maybe 25 years of teaching.”

Retired English teacher Sandy Nichols recalls Morris as a mature student, “not perky all the time, not bubbly.”

“You can probably tell that from her writing,” she says.

Dark vision

“Young God” stars a skinny 13-year-old girl named Nikki who wears her mother’s old pink bikini for underwear. We never know why, though we can assume it’s because she doesn’t own any real underwear.

Nikki’s character isn’t based on a real person – probably a good thing, considering that by book’s end, she’s ruthless. But Morris says she and Nikki share traits, including determination. “I tried to imagine what might happen to me if I grew up in a situation like that.”

The situation: Nikki’s mom has died and her dad is a drug-dealing pimp. The thing she fears – nearly the only thing she fears – is returning to a group home.

Kirkus Reviews likens the book to Flannery O’Connor, “but without a redemptive vision.”

“Morris writes brilliantly in short, spasmodic chapters,” Kirkus says, “but her vision borders on despair.”

That despair hits almost immediately. On page eight, Nikki witnesses her mother fall to her death. By page 20, she has had sex with her dead mother’s boyfriend, and she steals both his drug stash and his car. She ignores “No trespassing” signs to reach the trailer of Coy Hawkins, her drug-dealing father. There, she becomes his eager apprentice.

“I did not want to write about a victim,” Morris says. So Nikki does what she feels she must do to survive, “she becomes a monster, and she’s smart and sees opportunities available and takes them.”

Morris worked on “Young God” for five years, writing and rewriting. At one point, her manuscript was 100,000 words, not excessively long for a novel, “but I just hated it,” she says. “I would just delete like whole sections.”

The finished product is 20,000 words, more novella than novel. Many chapters are just a few paragraphs, or a few sentences, or a single sentence: “She pukes in the toilet.”

Morris writes with a poet’s precision, describing the burning ketchup smell of cooked heroin, Kool cigarettes in a box, the black boots Nikki buys at Wal-Mart with a wad of drug cash: “They have chains and they ring as she goes by.”

The stripped-down style propels the story. Momentum builds with every page. The end comes with a crash.

Dark and brilliant

Morris is 30, but in her author photo, with hair pulled back and head cocked, she looks maybe 15. She still gets carded. From the photos on katherinefawmorris.com you can see why Wilkes Central classmates regarded her as arty.

Her attire in these photos includes faux-fur jackets, short shorts, thigh-high stockings and chunky black boots – the kind of outfits Nikki might buy if she had the cash and Wal-Mart carried such items.

The website photos were taken by her husband, Don Morris, creative director of The Source, the nation’s oldest hip-hop magazine.

Katherine and Don Morris, 43, met by chance when she was an NYU student. “I literally saw her walk by a doorway and I kind of chased after her,” Don Morris says.

“He pretended he had writing work for me,” Katherine Morris recalls, “which he definitely did not.” They married in 2006.

Though Morris couldn’t wait to leave Wilkes County, she has grown to appreciate aspects of her home. “I felt very aware of who my family was. I felt like I had roots,” she says. She has since met people “who had a suburban upbringing, and it seems kind of generic.”

Also, when she thinks about friends and family, she recognizes the bond they shared. “It’s like we’ve all been stuck here together for so long, we all hate each other, but underneath, we love each other,” she says. “Underneath, people really care about each other.”

Morris knows her novel isn’t for everyone. “I understand it is shocking. I get that,” she says. But she has been surprised to hear people question whether the world she writes about really exists. “Bad things are happening constantly,” she says, “and sometimes it’s hard to see where the redemptive vision is in this world.”

Morris is now working on her second novel. This one is set in New York. It’s about a prostitute who becomes a terrorist. She says it’s even darker than her first.