Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

God Says No

by James Hannaham

“A tender, funny tour of a mind struggling to do the right thing. A revelatory and sympathetic guide to a misunderstood world.” —Steve Martin, author of Shopgirl and Born Standing Up

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date June 08, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4496-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date June 08, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9630-9
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Gary Gray marries his first girlfriend, a fellow student from Central Florida Christian College who loves Disney World as much as he does. They are nineteen, God-fearing, and eager to start a family, but a week before their wedding Gary goes into a rest-stop bathroom and lets something happen.

God Says No is his testimony—the story of a young black Christian struggling with desire and belief, with his love for his wife and his appetite for other men, told in a singular, emotional voice. Driven by desperation and religious visions, the path that Gary Gray takes—from revival meetings to out life in Atlanta to a pray-away-the-gay ministry in Memphis, Tennessee—gives a riveting picture of how a life like his can be lived, and how it can’t.

Tags Literary

Praise

“A tender, funny tour of a mind struggling to do the right thing. A revelatory and sympathetic guide to a misunderstood world.” —Steve Martin, author of Shopgirl and Born Standing Up

“This novel is an absolute original. Gary Gray’s search for wholeness and acceptance is a heartfelt (and often very funny) plea for all men (and women) to be embraced just as they are. A wonderful debut.” —Martha Southgate, author of Third Girl from the Left

God Says No is a book that was desperate to be written but well out of reach. And then James Hannaham came along and wrote it, with the kind of care, wit, sympathy and fury that the book deserved. A truly daring first novel.” —Jim Lewis, author of Why the Tree Loves the Ax

Awards

A Stonewall Book Award Pick 2010
Finalist for the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Debut Fiction

Excerpt

One

Russ broke my Jesus, and I was mad. I don’t know where all my anger came from—my roommate must have smashed up my good manners, too. Leaping up from the bunk bed, I shoved him across the room. He stumbled away, bumped his thigh on a chair, and limped around, rubbing it. I lay back down on the lower bunk and pretended to sleep, but my blood kept boiling. A moment passed and then—surprise!—Russ dove on top of me, his muscley frame on my beanbag chair of a body, landing vicious punches on my kidneys. I hollered and pushed, but he was much stronger than me, and he held tight. He tore my shirt and spat in my face. When I got my arms free from under his thighs and boxed his ears, he took to howling something fierce and tried to poke my eyeballs out with his thumbs. I lifted my arm to cover my face and elbowed him hard in the cheek, somewhat by accident.

By that time, the RA had heard the commotion from down the hall and rushed into our dorm room to pull us apart. Later, Russ got a shiner on account of my elbow.

Russ broke my Jesus in October of 1988, during midterms freshman year at Central Florida Christian College in Kissimmee. I’d come home that evening to find he’d shoved all my belongings into one corner and divided the room with a long strip of red tape. Behind a pile of my dirty clothes, I saw the shattered remains of the little statue I prayed to every night. It didn’t make sense. My Jesus couldn’t have fallen and broken into that many pieces. Russ had to have chucked it at the wall.

Russ didn’t like me, or people like me. In September I’d overheard him on the phone asking somebody, “What’d I do wrong that they put me in with a fat coon?” As if I wasn’t there, as if I wasn’t that fat coon. Since late August, we’d made it a point to stay apart. Taping the floor was the first time he’d acknowledged my existence in a whole month. Insults aside, the message I got from him destroying my Jesus was Russ hates me more than he loves Christ. A hate that deep spooked me.

After the fight, I gathered up the plaster shards in an old shirt and rested them on my desk. My skin still tingled with an adrenaline rush, and I had a fresh memory of Russ’s warm, strong thighs pinning me against the bed and the wall. I felt alive, the way you do after saying something you’ve kept to yourself for a real long time. My crotch woke up. Feeling confused and looking down at that smashed-up Jesus, holding His broken head and His hollow body in my hand, just like when Joseph took Him down from the cross, the white dust falling through my fingers—it sure was the start of something. The broken Jesus wasn’t the real beginning of the story, though, just the point when I admitted I had a story at all. Because right then it struck me that I might never be a normal Christian man—definitely not a radio preacher, like I dreamed of—and I started to panic something terrible inside.

I was fixing to put Him back together, but I didn’t have any glue, so I had to calm myself down and head out to the nearest convenience store, a piece down the road. As I lowered Jesus onto the desk, the shards made tinkly sounds like wind chimes. I sped out of the dorm feeling more upset than I should have, but I couldn’t control myself, or think why not, except that everybody got stressed out during midterms. Tears welled up in my eyes and I started sniffling—I felt dopey on top of the sadness. I kept telling myself, “Stop your blubbering, Gary. What are the stationery-store people going to think?” Nobody special had given me that Jesus. I had bought it myself on after-Christmas discount at Keegan’s, the gardening center where I worked in high school. Had I been worshipping a graven image instead of the real savior?

I spent a while in the store, pacing the aisles and trying to decide which glue to get. Then an Asian girl I’d seen working in the dining hall came in to buy cola and snacks. She was short and heavy, with long wavy black hair and glasses. We had always been cordial over the serving trays, and she must have noticed that I looked mighty troubled, so I ended up telling her about the fight, and my busted-up Jesus. She listened sympathetically, recommended a certain brand of superglue, paid for her things, and left. That was Annie, the girl I’d marry in less than a year. Funny how one person in a relationship always has a different set of memories from the other. Annie doesn’t remember that night, but her kindness fell on me like loaves of bread from the sky, and I suddenly became calm, the type of peacefulness I’d felt as a boy when my fears kept me awake and my mother let me sleep in my parents’ bed.

Back in the dorm, I spent the next three hours fitting Jesus back together like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. But I couldn’t find this one chip right at the rib cage. I got on my knees and looked under the furniture and everything, but it had disappeared.

I really dislike confrontation because of how my daddy used to beat up on my family, so I wrote Russ a Post-it note asking him to either replace the statuette or reimburse me. I left the note on his pillow and went to sleep, though it took a long time to drift off. Russ came in from biology class the next morning at ten, shook me awake, and explained that the statue had been on the shelf, and when he dusted up there, it fell down and broke.

“If you’d known what you were doing, Gary, you wouldn’t have put it so close to the edge,” he hissed. I couldn’t believe he blamed me. I nearly started another fight.

School policy made getting new roommates tough. Instead, they encouraged healing differences and fostering brotherhood through the teachings of Christ, along with regular counseling. If we chose the second option, the elders said they wouldn’t call our parents. Neither of us wanted that, so we tried to make amends.

Once the elders made me and Russ like each other, I forced myself to notice the good about him. It came a lot easier than I reckoned it would. But he didn’t have abstract qualities like intelligence or honesty. I’d think, I sure like his Alabama accent, it sounds nice when he keeps his voice low. I watched his lips move—full, red, and soft like a girl’s—and how that bright, pale, athletic body of his practically glowed in the dark. Russ is a good guy, I’d think. A real good guy. At first I didn’t believe myself. But I thought it a whole lot, and something shifted in my head. Truth be told, I started watching him when he undressed at night. One night I said, “Russ, man, I wish I had a body like yours.”

“What? White?” he asked, tugging up his pants by his belt loops.

“No,” I stuttered, sort of peeved. “You know that isn’t what I meant.”

“Skinny?” He fake-smiled with his full teeth, tunneled into a polo shirt, and left. Growling to myself, I turned to the wall and pretended to read a magazine.

Eventually, to make things look good, Russ let me sit with him in the cafeteria, and we found that we had some things in common. We both liked cocker spaniels and collies (though I hated German shepherds). We both liked fire-and-brimstone preachers. Our fathers had the same birthday, September 17. By and by, he replaced my plaster Jesus with a heavier porcelain one that had golden hair and a blue robe. But someway, I never could get used to that one. I only felt better if I put them next to each other. I thought maybe a prayer to both of them would be twice as likely to reach. But whenever I prayed, I’d face the original to the right so I wouldn’t have to stare into that hollow chest.

Back home in Charleston on Thanksgiving break, I went to St. John’s A.M.E. Zion Church on Sunday to hear Rev. Isaiah Lovejoy, my favorite preacher ever. St. John’s A.M.E. Wasn’t one of those fall-down places like out in the Sea Islands, but if people felt the spirit, they’d raise their arms and shout “Glory to God!” “Hallelujah!” and “Yes, Lord!” I had always admired Rev. Lovejoy’s speechifying. He’d stand straight as a lamppost, but he’d use his hands real expressively, playing the crowd like an organ. His sermons against crime and adultery were the best, but he didn’t do so well at preaching brotherhood.

I studied him carefully, because I also wanted to help people experience the reality of God. That Sunday, Rev. Lovejoy talked about Jonah and devotion. The spirit got into him so much that he tore the underarm of his jacket and his glasses got all fogged up. He took them off and kept going. First everybody in the pulpit leapt to their feet, then the whole congregation. We applauded and shouted almost like folks in those other churches. At one point, Rev. Lovejoy described Hell in so much detail that Mrs. Addison, a dignified lady with yellow feathers in her yellow hat, burst into tears and ran right out of the church. A bunch of people, including me, followed her with their eyes, guessing why she thought she was going to Hell.

I was awed by Rev. Lovejoy, and a little jealous. I wanted the power to make people know in their hearts that God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell were true, but I had stage fright. I thought if I preached on the radio, I wouldn’t have that problem, so I decided to major in Communications.

Back when I was eight years old, my folks and I used to listen to radio station WGWT, “God’s word today.” WGWT played Mahalia Jackson records and preachers with rough voices. Reverends from all over the country would prove through biblical logic that Satan controlled the world. The only way to stop him was to let Jesus into your heart. I had done that, of course. One day Mama sat me down on a bench outside the post office where she worked. She asked me if I wanted to be saved, so I said yes, Ma’am, I sure do. Then she told me to put my head down and ask Jesus to come into my heart, and I did that, too. When I heard Jesus tell me that he wouldn’t ever desert me, my skin tingled and I got teary-eyed. I said thank you, Jesus. Mama read from the beginning of Matthew 18—”Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Then she wet my forehead with kisses.

After I accepted Jesus, I begged my mother to get my father to take us to a revival meeting up in Bishopville to see Rev. Ebenezer Poyas, who was my favorite before I discovered Rev. Lovejoy. Daddy thought that only Baptists, whom he called “fool niggers,” went to revivals, but it turned out he liked Rev. Poyas. Poyas—you pronounce it “Pious”—was a methodist who thought the bible should be the law, that sinners should get the old-time punishments like stoning, that you should burn offerings for the Lord and the whole enchilada. He sang the words “Praise God!” and took a gulp of air between every phrase during his sermons. But his big thing was faith healing.

The meeting was all black folks like us, dark women and girls in pink and white and lace-trim dresses looking like chocolate bunnies, with fellows old and young in serious grays and red ties, here and there a cummerbund. Not as colorful as at home, where the ladies would come dressed in all lime green, and even my father, who never wore anything but black to the law firm where he was a runner, sometimes wore a cobalt blue suit on the hottest, humidest days.

Rev. Poyas wore a suit the color of a chalkboard. His heavy forehead beaded with sweat, and he promenaded through the crowd, swinging the microphone up the aisle. I closed my eight-year-old eyes, hoping that he would put that hand on my head and I’d feel God’s healing electricity zap me. I couldn’t see him through all the tall people around me, but when I heard Reverend Poyas’s voice coming closer, I froze.

He searched the crowd for a woman who turned out to be standing next to us. I opened my eyes. The lady wept as she told Rev. Poyas all about her brain cancer, and then she took off her straw hat to reveal a baldie bean. I had only seen that hairstyle on a boy, so I nearly laughed. Everybody else stayed serious. The Reverend laid his hand on the lady’s shaved head, and her eyes rolled back so only the whites showed. Her knees gave out. I took a breath; it wasn’t funny anymore. She dropped the hat in the aisle and went into convulsions, stumbling and saying “yip-yip” like a little dog. I braced my hands, hoping she would fall on me and some of Christ’s healing power would rub off. But instead she fell into the aisle.

Everybody lunged over to keep her from hitting the ground, but we missed. She hit the grass and rolled around, and Rev. Poyas had everybody singing Hallelujah! and Praise Jesus! The organist played dramatic chords and whooshed his finger up the keys.

Soon the woman got up on her knees and told Rev. Poyas that the pain had gone and there was no more brain cancer in her head. Everybody under the tent applauded. I asked Mama how the woman knew the Lord had cured her brain cancer. She frowned down at me and said, “’Cause Jesus took away the pain, that’s how. Such foolishness.”

At that time, her explanation satisfied me. Like a lot of folks, when somebody in the know confirms what I already want to believe, I swallow it whole. Because if the Lord could heal something serious like brain cancer, he’d have no trouble granting my little wishes. The organist’s magnificent chords rang out, loud and astounding as salvation itself. Some people in the front leapt up and down, and their whole bodies shook. Mama wailed and nodded, her eyes full of tears. Daddy nudged me and smirked as if to say Fool niggers. Did he mean Mama, too?

I kept my eyes glued to the brain-cancer woman. Kneeling in the muddy grass of the tent floor with her arms raised, greenish brown stains all over her blouse, she wept and kept thanking Jesus. She held on to the crabgrass like she was trying to keep her joy from catching the wind and taking her right off the planet Earth. I just knew from watching her glossy eyes, staring toward the sky like she could really see Jesus, that the disease had left her body. I wanted to know what she saw, to feel what salvation felt like. As she cried out to the Lord, I looked where she was looking, but I only saw the crook of the tent, where a lost starling clung to the ropes, flapping his wings.

Ten years later, in college, watching Reverend Lovejoy’s Hell sermon during my Thanksgiving break, I still wasn’t sure what the brain-cancer woman had felt. Even after scaring Mrs. Addison, Reverend Lovejoy hadn’t healed anybody. He kept describing Hell like he’d just come back from there. “The canyons are gigantic smoldering coals!” he shouted. “Hallelujah! when the blue flame touches skin, the seared flesh will bubble! Hallelujah! Floating down a river of lava, you’ll hear millions—millions!—of sinners, shrieking for mercy in vain! Hallelujah!” The congregation gasped. My eyes flowed over with tears of repentance.

Our neighbor Debbie Ross walked us home after St. John’s. She had the gift of gab. She got my mother into a discussion about nothing, so I could think my own troublesome thoughts as we walked over the broken sidewalks back to Romney Street. I couldn’t stop praying for forgiveness and worrying about seared flesh bubbling. I imagined the skin on my forearm melting like pizza topping. I’ve got to tell Russ about Rev. Lovejoy, I said to myself. He’d love Rev. Lovejoy. Russ loves a tough sermon like Rev. Lovejoy’s. I love that guy.

By the time we got near my house, Debbie had kept Mama back a couple of doors, still talking. I came to the front gate and touched it, but for some reason I couldn’t move to open it. I stared up at the 1-26 overpass with my mind finally blank and listened to cars whooshing up there, their wheels drumming against the concrete. I saw the sky, boy-blue and full of feathery clouds. I love Russ. I’m in love with Russ, I thought, laughing to myself and shaking my head. I knew that wasn’t possible. Russ hated me more than he loved Jesus, and plus he was a boy! A laugh rumbled up from my stomach, but then I got that seasick feeling you get when something’s so weird and bad and wrong that it’s got to be true. For a minute the air filled with a sweet scent—a weird one for November, hibiscus maybe—and I felt hundreds of tiny needles poke my skin in a wave that went from my heart to my feet and back. My nervous laugh burst out and frightened a bird from a nearby bush. Mama showed up behind me without Debbie and asked what was funny. I grabbed the fence tighter and said Me, because I can’t get this here latch undone.