Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: God Says No by James Hannaham

Gary Gray wants nothing more than to be "normal." He wants to fall in love, get married, have children, go to church, go to Disney Land and live the American dream. He's got one little problem, though: he's in love with his roommate, Russ, and lusting after other men is frowned upon at Southern Florida Christian College.

God Says No is the story of a deeply religious man coming to terms with his homosexuality. And whether he likes it or not, Gary is gay. He tries to hide it -- in college, he pays a fellow student to pretend to be his girlfriend. When he begins dating Annie, they sneak around, planning late-night rendezvous, not to have sex but to raid the refrigerator in the cafeteria where Annie works. When he finds out Annie is pregnant (after one fumbling night, with passion inspired by a run-in with Russ walking across campus), Gary does the right thing, plans a wedding, and tries to get God to help with his plan:

"Lord, I can't live this way," I said. "You've got to change me right this instant. I have to be normal by Saturday."
In less skillful hands, Gary would be a cartoon character. He is black, fat, raised by Bible-thumpers. He loves Disneyland and Waffle House. He believes that ordinary things like wrong numbers and bus advertisements are actually signs from God. But author James Hannaham has created a lovable, funny character that I found myself rooting for, even when I rolled my eyes and wanted to throttle him.

His mistakes are numerous: he gets married to try to convince himself he's not gay. He is unfaithful to his wife, engaging in risky bathroom sexual encounters with strangers. In what has to be a moment of insanity, he leaves his wife and daughter behind, starting a new life under a new name, with a plan to work out his evil SSAs (same sex attractions) in the gay bars of Atlanta, all so that he can go back to his family a changed man. When he moves in with Miguel, he decides that if he doesn't have sex, he can still stay on God's good side:

"...why would He make you fall in love and then strike you dead for obeying Him? Clearly, the Lord didn't mind the love part of homosexuality. It was the sex part that got Him mad. If two men could love each other without giving in to animalistic urges, I bet they could still be good Christians."

When Gary's experiment in living as a gay man ("the year of free checking") comes to an abrupt end, he tries a "pray away the gay" rehab center, where counselors attempt to help men reconnect with their masculinity by teaching them auto repair and the rules of football. But this is an ongoing theme for Gary -- he has prayed his entire life for God to take away these urges with no success. Pep talks, Group Share, board games and Masculinity Repair are not going to help him. Neither will the fact that he has the hots for his rehab roommate.

He finds the program, Resurrection Ministries, to be a surprisingly unforgiving place. When one of their number goes missing, he is shocked that no one among his friends seems at all interested in looking for him or bringing him back to the fold. Instead, they deride his lack of discipline and suggest he is "probably better off shooting up with his tricks." But he sticks with the program, even though he knows, deep down, he is not defeating his desires.

Even when I laughed at Gary and some of his more ridiculous ideas, my heart broke for him. He was obviously hurting and he did not want to disappoint the people in his life -- his mother, his wife, his daughter -- who were counting on him. He did not understand why God wouldn't help him, change him, get him on the right path. It is incredibly well-written, full of humor and heartbreak.

James Hannaham has written for Salon, The Literary Review, Open City and Nerve, as well as The Village Voice, Spin, Blender, Out, Us, New York and The Barnes & Noble Review. He is also the brother of a friend of mine, so I was thrilled both to read the book and to really enjoy it.

5 comments:

bermudaonion said...

This does sound like a fun book that would make you think.

Phyl said...

I so so so want to read this, even more now than I did before. I'll find a copy by hook or by crook.

Your description of Gary's struggles reminded me of another online friend who I met in New York 10 years ago, one of the gay guys from a discussion forum. He came from the same sort of background, and told me how he'd beg God to change him. And when he seemed to be unchangeable, even by God (because God could do anything if you had faith), he became convinced he was therefore the Antichrist, and he used to curl up on his bed and cry.

He was about 11 years old.

Margot at Joyfully Retired said...

A sensitive subject handled so well be the author and by you. I'm impressed. The book sounds like a humorous character study that is also touching and heartbreaking. Tell your friend we like the sound of his brother's book.

Lisa said...

Phyl, I am really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book. I really enjoyed it - it's very funny and very subtle.

carolsnotebook said...

Sounds like a good book, but I'm hoping Gary comes to accept himself.