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God, Gays, and Grits

God, Gays, and Grits


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

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.

You include a very relevant quotation from Of Human Bondage before the first chapter. Somerset Maugham wrote in a distant, third-person voice, and yours is incredibly intimate and first person. How did you arrive at that?I wanted this novel to be in the voice of someone telling their own, nonfictional story. Usually that voice is one of authority, but in Gary's case it's a sort of clumsiness of voice. It gives you the feeling that what you're reading could actually be true. The inspiration for that came from reading LaToya Jackson's autobiography -- no joke. I thought, "Someone wrote this, but who? Some of it must be true, but what?"

Gary's story will definitely resonate with gay people, but what do you think straight people can get out of reading God Says No ?It's surprising. I have a friend, a straight woman, beautiful and blond, who told me she feels like she is Gary. I think that's because through Gary I was trying to talk about Americans' quest for "normalcy," even if there is no such thing.

And what about conservative Christians? How would you approach them with this book?I guess I would just drop it in their hands and run! I want it to be read differently depending on what you already believe, and I'm not all that protective of interpretation.

The action in your novel unfolds exclusively in the South -- Charleston, Atlanta, Memphis, and Orlando. You're from Yonkers, N.Y. Have you visited all of those cities?I've been to all but one of them. Maybe I shouldn't say which one; I'll let people guess. But yeah, Gary's life is contained by the South. The reason that I made him come from Charleston is that Charleston is kind of like New Orleans in a straitjacket. It's a very sensuous, sultry place, but it's extremely repressed. It's really the most Southern city in the South. It's prone to hurricanes and even earthquakes ... you have to be a little nutty to live there. Also, Sullivan's Island is there -- that's where a lot of slaves in the U.S. came in. If there's a tongue-and-cheek slave narrative in the book, it's touched on there. There's no North in this book -- there's no promised land where Gary might go to be free.

It's interesting that there's so much emphasis about the "sin" of homosexuality these days when the Bible your characters follow similarly proscribes gluttony. Gary and his mother are both obese -- so how do those two "sins" compare for him?Gary probably prefers eating over sex, but the thing about him is that he can't really control any of his appetites.

And his mother?It's funny, I actually cut a scene where he and his mother leave a restaurant and see their waiter in an alley making out with another guy. Gary's mother starts shouting about sin, and the waiter shouts back, "What are you talking about? You just ate the crab cakes!"

Is the current cultural and political environment one that will be receptive to your book?It's not very fashionable to write a gay novel right now. Gay bookstores are closing all over the country.

So is this a "gay novel"?Well, I'm not entirely sure what that term means. It's a novel with gay content. But it's not a novel that has sex only with other novels.

Funny. Speaking of -- the dust jacket features an endorsement from Steve Martin. That's impressive for a first-time novelist. How did that come about?I know Steve's wife, Anne Stringfield. These days Steve is a little -- how should I say? -- cranky. People he meets want to talk about movies, but he really doesn't want to talk about his films. He'd much rather talk about writing than making Bringing Down the House with Queen Latifah. So I sort of became his buddy, talking about writing. Later on I thought, Why not ask him for a blurb? Just shoot the moon, you know?

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