I’ve been a big fan of McSweeney’s Press ever since I picked up a copy of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2002. I’ve devoured copies of McSweeney’s, The Believer, a couple of Nick Hornby’s books, and all of Eggers’ books. McS always produces beautifully designed books, and they publish the work of interesting, innovative storytellers. I’m also always on the lookout for fiction that deals intelligently with religion and culture. That’s why God Says No by James Hannaham really grabbed my attention when I was rambling through a bookstore in Seattle earlier this summer. While it wasn’t a perfect novel, by any means, it was a brave one, in that it not only looked at issues about race, faith, and sexuality that are oft-discussed in American culture, but usually with a tone more snarky than empathetic, and usually without taking into consideration just how complicated life can be.
Hannaham, who teaches at the Pratt Institute and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas, weaves a narrative around a central question–can a man be Gay, Christian, a Father, and Black–all at the same time–without hating or destroying himself?
Gary Gray, the narrator and protagonist, is trying to figure all of that out. Enrolled in a small Christian College in Orlando, Gary finds himself torn between his desires to be an evangelical radio preacher and his desires for other men. Throughout the novel, he oscillates between his hope to be “normal” and his desire to find love and sexual fulfillment, he finds himself in a number of heart-wrenching sets of circumstances: Family man who cruises public areas for anonymous sex with other men, Presumed dead in Florida and living under a pseudonym as an openly gay man in Atlanta, prayerfully promising Jesus he will get it out of his system in a year, and as a participant in 12-step style “ex-gay” ministry outside of Memphis, TN.
Several pop culture streams converge here–it’s impossible to not think about J.L. King’s On the Down Low, or Ted Haggard’s fall from grace or even scenes featuring ex-gay ministries in Bill Maher’s Religulous or Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest flick. It’s interesting to see these media sensations reflected in a more literary narrative, and it’s interesting to see the story unfold with Disneyworld (which Gary and his wife love) and the South of the late 80s and early 90s as the backdrop. In many ways, Hannaham doesn’t show us anything that hasn’t been featured on Oprah, Dateline or more salacious tabloids, blogs, and television shows.
He does, however, humanize the issue in Gary. For me, what makes him most authentic as a character is the fact that he’s so frustrating. He’s both naive and self-absorbed. He reads the Bible like a fundamentalist. He’s cowardly. He makes the kind of mistakes your high-maintance friends from college make.
And yet, you can’t help but feel for the guy. His ability to articulate who he is are limited from the beginning, and in the moments when he is truly brave, he seems motivated by a holy union of agape and eros that make his attempts to live a life he describes as “Christ-like” seem no more off target than those of most Church-goers.
What I most appreciated about Hannaham’s book, however, is that he writes a narrative steeped in empathy, not ideology, and never tries to get preachy (he leaves that to Gary). Even at the end of the novel, it’s a bit ambiguous. We wonder if Gary has made a choice, and if he is going to be able to live with himself, or if he’s setting himself up to struggle between Celibacy (I SO wanted to make a “Never Never Land” joke) and a self he’s not yet equipped to reconstruct. Rather than seeing this as a cop-out, I think it is Hannaham’s strongest statement–that in a country that boasts both the Metropolitan Community Church and Exodus International and in which Fundamentalism and Science are at loggerheads over homosexuality and so many other issues, what ultimately gets lost is that this is about the ability of everyday people (no matter how frustrating they are) to live and love. Hannaham lets us see how hard that is for at least one person.
***Content in this book is often very graphic.