God, Gays, and Grits

James Hannaham's debut novel is a comic coming-of-age story set in the conservative South.

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 04 2009 11:00 PM ET

Somerset Maugham's Philip Carey, John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius Reilly, and Bill Cosby's Fat Albert meet in a gay bar frequented by fictional characters. They drink themselves stupid and then somehow tri-procreate without the aid of woman. Their offspring? Well, he'd look an awful lot like Gary Gray. A naive, obese, sweet-as-pie black man in late-'80s Orlando, Fla., Gray is the ne'er-do-well narrator of God Says No, the debut novel from Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer James Hannaham.

The book is a redemption story in which Gary, with Jesus ever-present in his thoughts, makes heinous mistakes and struggles with varying degrees of determination to right the wrongs. Through Gary, Hannaham confronts religion, race, sexuality, and the American South with a fair measure of drama, a heaping helping of humor, and lots and lots of ice cream. (Gary never loses a fight with a triple-scoop sundae.)

As a fundamentalist Christian college student, Gary is disturbed by his budding sexual interest in other men. Though he prays frequently, it is quite a different episode on his knees -- in a Waffle House men's room -- that proves his undoing. This lavatory encounter with a redneck pops the cork on a spree of indiscretions that Gary euphemistically thinks of as "guy stuff." Meanwhile, he attempts the straight life with his young bride, Annie. (They have a shotgun wedding after Gary impregnates her in a fumbling attempt at "normal" sex.) One of the most affecting aspects of Hannaham's novel is Gary's genuine love for his wife and child, the lack of sexual attraction notwithstanding.

But Gary's lust for forbidden pleasures cannot be stopped. A truly spectacular chain of events results in a pseudonymized Gary relocating from Florida to Atlanta, where he explores the sultry world of gay bars and late-night release in public parks. His family is out of the picture in this middle act, and Gary learns a lot about "gay life," relationships unencumbered by romantic deception, and, oddly, dramaturgy. But just as he's adjusting to his new identity, his old life finds him, and he is incarcerated in a reparative therapy program in Memphis, Tenn.

Though religion is referenced on every page of this novel, it's in the last third that Gary thinks hardest about his conservative theology. At Resurrection Ministries, Gary meets other men who suffer from what their deprogrammers call "SSAs" -- same-sex attractions -- and enrolls in a slate of remedial courses including "Masculine Repair." For all the effort the men expend in the struggle against their SSAs, Gary slowly sees the flaws in Jesus' plan for him.

It's a dense web of subject matter that Hannaham presents in a surprisingly light -- and very funny -- manner. His own biography had less to do with it than one might assume, though both LaToya Jackson and Steve Martin have somehow played roles in the novel's young life.

A lot of novels about gay people in the '80s feature dramatic turns in which characters are gay-bashed or contract HIV. You forgo that for the most part.I think this book is pretty dramatic without that, actually, but I'm much more interested in the comedy of coming out -- that you could have this experience where pretty much everybody knows something about you that you don't know. It's not even that you're denying it -- it's that you really don't know it. That's just funny to me.

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