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June 11, 2009

Book Notes - James Hannaham ("God Says No")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

James Hannaham's debut novel God Says No is the rare novel both intensely heartfelt and highly comedic. Gary Gray's fundamentalist beliefs are at odds with his homosexuality, and his actions to reconcile the two form the basis of one of the year's most original , entertaining, and most important novels. The humanity with which Hannaham draws Gray is admirable, and though the protagonist may not be the most likable character, he is ultimately unforgettable.

An excerpt from the book appears in McSweeney's 31.

Jennifer Egan wrote of the book:

"James Hannaham's God Says No introduces a groundbreaking new American voice: a writer of spectacular sentences who has trained his sights on a world that has hardly been touched by literary fiction. Topical and ambitious, disturbing and hilarious, God Says No is everything a person could ask of a first novel — and twice that much."

In his own words, here is James Hannaham's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, God Says No:

God Says No is the story of Gary Gray, a fat, religious closet case from South Carolina who has an extraordinarily hard time reconciling his Christian faith and his desire for other men, and on top of that, negotiating his place in the world of gay men, with whom he mostly interacts by having illicit encounters in public bathrooms. Gary doesn't follow music at all, so when a song appears in his life, it often takes on a strong association with a particular person, almost like a leitmotif, or it shocks him into insight.

Doobie Brothers "Black Water"
In group therapy with some guys who want to rid themselves of homosexual desires, Gary has a powerful yet ambiguous memory of a forbidden trip he took to an amusement park as a preadolescent with a friend and his friend's Uncle Dave. Dave's a quintessential Southern bad-boy, a self-mocking, happy-go-lucky dude who runs a gardening center. He gives the 12-year-olds advice on getting divorced and cheating on polygraph tests. When the radio comes on, what else could he scream along to but the Southern bad-boy's classic rock anthem? Despite possibly being a child molester, Dave ain't got no worries, ‘cause he ain't in no hurry at all.

Wilf Carter "Where Is My Boy Tonight?"
Rev. Mike
Here's an example of how Gary's sexual confusion and religious faith get a bit mixed up. This old hymn takes as its subject the reconciliation of fathers and sons—what could be more heterosexual? But also homosocial, it turns out, and as such, ripe for camp reinterpretation when considered by queers. In basic terms, this is a love song from one man to another; few of the lyrics indicate that "my boy" definitively means "my son." And when you're starved for affirmation and/or paranoid about being discovered, you can't help but see the subtext here. Rev. Mike's son is in the closet and the Rev. doesn't know. Relatively early in God Says No, Gary hears Rev. Mike lead this song after giving a moving a sermon about fathers and sons. I meant to write a later scene where Gary idly hums the melody while cruising for guys, but I guess I thought that might be too much.

My heart oerflows
For I love him, he knows
O where is my boy tonight?

Rev. James Cleveland "Something's Got a Hold On Me"
Mahalia Jackson "Didn't It Rain"

Jamilynn and Gregory Gray, Vietta Consequence
These songs are part of the playlist at Gary's wedding. If you've heard them, it becomes pretty clear that Gary's parents and his Aunt Vietta are running the show. They've made no concession to the idea that Gary's marrying a Samoan woman, or that he might have musical tastes of his own. They've chosen a bunch of their favorite old-time gospel songs (nothing you'd really hear at a wedding in the 1980s—I remember playing Larry Graham's gooey soul song "One in a Million You" for a neighbor's wedding back then). This stuff has no rock band backing, just piano, drums, choir, and a lead vocalist feeling the spirit. "Something's Got a Hold On Me" is a story of conversion that resonates nicely with all the reinventions Gary goes through in the novel. Late in the song, "something" is revealed as the "holy ghost," but who knows the true substance of religious ecstasy? "Didn't It Rain" enhances Gary's memory of his wedding because Hurricane Hugo hits Charleston shortly afterward, linking the two disasters in his mind, I suppose. It's a boogie-woogie gospel song about the Great Flood—nearly as secular as "Joy to the World."

Vanity 6 "Nasty Girl"
In a scene I ended up cutting, Gary's on a business trip to San Diego and runs into a colleague, Marv, at a boothstore near the highway right after Gary has given a blowjob. This song is playing in the background, and Gary takes note of Vanity's line, "tonight I need 7 inches or more." Shall I confess that this is one of my favorite songs ever? Hardly a day goes by at home when I don't make a facetious reference to its ridiculous lyrics with my boyfriend. I guess I'm just used to sailors. I think they got water on the brain. I think they got more water upstairs than they got sugar on a candy cane. I recently had the gratifying experience of dancing to "Nasty Girl" at a (heterosexual) wedding—with the bride, naturally.

The Eagles "Desperado"
This is the song they always play at a western-themed gay bar Gary frequents. I doubt that any such place would be snarky enough to make that song its last dance, and hence a background to the sounds of single queers feverishly attempting to hook up as the bar closes, but I used to go to a club in New Haven called the Copacabana whose last dance was always the disco song of the same name. I have a lot of (bad) memories of desperately scanning crowds, knowing that when Barry Manilow stopped crooning about Lola the Showgirl—who goes insane after a Latino tough named Rico murders her bartender boyfriend at the eponymous disco, bear in mind—all hope of a hookup would expire, and I'd have to trudge off to Howard Johnson's for a late night breakfast.

Alicia Bridges "I Love The Nightlife"
In the middle of a heated argument about their sex life, Gary's alcoholic boyfriend Miquel suddenly bursts into a rendition of this song in a crowded restaurant. His eruption is inspired by the weird way that Alicia Bridges chews on the word "action" in the song, implying all kinds of late-7os hedonism and kink as an alternative to a relationship gone sour, interestingly because of the other person's infidelity, not the singer's repressed desire for, as she puts it, "a-eck-tion."

Pet Shop Boys "It's A Sin"
Religious guilt as subject for gay 80s disco hit? Count me in! You could probably play this song while reading the entire book and it would rarely seem an inappropriate background.

At school they taught me how to be
So pure of thought and word and deed
They didn't quite succeed...

Brother Joe May "Your Sins Will Find You Out"
In the course of my research on gospel music, I rediscovered this rather prescriptive, moralizing, but exceptionally catchy sermon of a song by Brother Joe May, aka "The Thunderbolt of the Middle West," the perfect song, I thought, for a closeted black gay man at a reparative therapy clinic to recall as he goes AWOL to rescue the boy he's got a mad crush on. The lyrics become pretty ironic when you think of how they might appear to a closeted homosexual:

Things we do in the dark
You know will often come to light
And wrong will sooner or later yield right
Your story we all know
You've got to reap what you sow
Without a doubt
Be sure your sins will find you out
Find you out, find you out
Well it don't matter how you sing, preach, pray and shout
Oh the Lord his grace imparts
Still the people got evil in down in their hearts
Oh, without a doubt be sure your sins will find you out

I appreciate the song's disdain for hypocrisy, and Brother Joe sings the crap out of it—maybe enough to scare someone back into the closet. It also occurred to me that while the phrase "find you out" might mean "be revealed and humiliate you" in the song, it could also be punningly reinterpreted as "discover you living openly as a homosexual at a later date." And in life, you certainly can't get to that second meaning without braving the former. I love the ambiguity in language. It really has allowed gay culture and gay people to thrive no matter what.

James Hannaham and God Says No links:

the author's website

Austin American-Statesman review
Barnes & Noble review
The Defenders Online review
Weekly Dig review

Bookslut interview with the author
Time Out New York profile of the author
Village Voice profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks


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