Fat, Black, Gay and Forsaken By Jesus

6.24.2009

By Tim Murphy

Poor Gary Gray of central Florida. With perhaps the world's dullest name, he's also morbidly obese, happiest when he's at Disney World or Waffle House, simple-minded, naive and stubbornly of the belief that if he truly surrenders to Jesus, he'll be de-gayed. But the universe has other plans for Gary, involving fatherhood, a life-changing incident on a train, a fabulous stint in Hotlanta, a tenure at a surprisingly fun-loving ex-gay conversion camp -- and maybe even a chance at not being a total mess. Gary's the protagonist of God Says No, the debut novel of New Yorker James Hannaham, a longtime arts critic and journalist for places like The Village Voice and Salon and an alum of the experimental downtown performance troupe Elevator Repair Service (ERS). He talked to us (okay, we admit it, we're old friends!) about why he wrote about an uncool guy in an uncool place, and about what, if anything, he and Gary have in common.

Out: Well, first of all, your book is hilarious but also deeply moving. I would constantly laugh and tear up on the same page. Gary is really a character you end up rooting for despite how pathetic he is.
James Hannaham: That's absolutely what I intended. But if you stop and think about it, there are plenty of reasons why you might be a little more critical of him. In a first-person narrative, your narrator is always a little unreliable and a little self-serving. He [redacted because it's a spoiler!] and is obsessed with this one aspect of his personality, being attracted to men. He can't find any sort of balance.

The world of this book is about as far away as possible from where you grew up'Yonkers, right outside New York City'and the New York world you've lived in your whole adult life. Where did this book come from?
Several different things came together over time and snowballed into what became the character and the book. I wrote a first novel that didn't get published, and some of the reaction from publishers was that they just didn't like the main character. So I thought, What if I wrote a character like Gary, whose big problem is that he wanted to be liked? Then once when I was traveling with ERS, I thought, what if we weren't a theater company but an international terrorist organization posing as a theater company? So I started this story about a mime troupe that had a residence at an amusement park, and that Gary was involved in the group somehow. Then that mostly got removed and it became Gary's coming-of-age story.

But mainly the book is about a guy who desperately wants to lose his homosexuality and who thinks God is forsaking him in not letting him overcome his gayness.
It seemed kind of an unfashionable thing to write about, but when I thought about it -- I mean, I have a certain friend whose family is from New Jersey, not the South, and yet they're Pentecostal and he was not out to them even though he was 33. Even in places where we say we're enlightened, like the northeast, it's always somewhat of a struggle to be raised by heterosexual parents -- even the ones who profess to be okay with it.

But why did you write this big pathetic mess of a character?
There are a bunch of different reasons. He's kind of a strange negative image of me, because I'm not all that interested in writing about myself. I was raised in the north and I wasn't raised any religion and only went to church for weddings and funerals. But I'm like a lot of black Americans in the northeast in that I'm only a generation removed from the south. My mother was from Georgia and my father's family was from the Carolinas.

There was no real Jesus presence in your childhood?
Not at all. On my mother's side of the family, art is much more their religion than Christianity. [Hannaham's cousin is the artist Kara Walker.] I think my mother considered herself a Christian mystic and my dad is involved with those Science of Mind people who meet at Alice Tully Hall [at Lincoln Center].

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