A minister, believing he was on a mission from God, identified a local teacher as a homosexual. The ‘outing’ led to the teacher’s murder. The states attorney decided the minister had put the teacher’s life in jeopardy by singling him out for only one reason; the teacher was a homosexual. The states attorney charged the minister with a hate crime reasoning you cannot use the Bible to justify homophobic behavior. Like a rock thrown into a pool, many persons in the community are touched by the teacher’s murder, the police investigation, the trial, and the jury proceedings.
When I reach for a novel, I’m looking for a good, tight story involving memorable characters told in a consistent narrative voice. In “God Hates Fags,” author Joe Wellman presents a core theme with a story packed around it from the outside, the characters are presented as sociological case studies, and the narrative voice is lost amidst lengthy flashbacks and repetitive, flat phrasing.
The question as to which comes first, the theme or the story, is essential. A theme should arise organically from within a well-told story. This book’s theme, overtly announced in the last sentence of the jacket copy quoted above, is overemphasized in the book’s epigraph: “No event is merely a rock thrown into a pond. The ripples touch the lives of many.”
But there is no focus on the event in question. Flashbacks are presented for 14 different characters, taking up approximately 105 pages (about one-third of the novel) and are spread throughout the book beginning in chapter 2. Each time I start to become involved in the basic story (a murder and hate crime trial), I have to stop and wade through an extensive explanation of why a particular character behaves the way they do. In chapter 12’s flashback, Paul is having a conversation with Sean; Sean then goes into a three-page flashback of his own during the first flashback conversation. This is very distracting.
Although the book is labeled “Suspense” on the back jacket, lack of surprise is another result of the flashbacks. In chapter 13 there are seven pages describing the horrid conditions of Sarah’s childhood; as we snap back to the present, Sarah attempts suicide. As a reader, I don’t need a graphic history of child abuse to precede a suicide attempt as it not only removes any surprise I might feel over Sarah’s drastic step, it also prevents me from using my imagination. This is particularly true of the character Runt. Given his nickname and wonderfully detailed physical description, I can guess what his childhood must have been like.
In an obvious attempt to make up for this pacing deficiency, chapter 21 (half-way point of the novel) is presented from eight different points of view with only two switches separated by extra space on the page. Unfortunately this becomes a trend: chapter 22 is a five-page flashback, chapter 23 is more flitting about between POVs; chapter 24 is a seven-page flashback, chapter 25 is two POVs with no space break between them; chapter 26 is a nine-page flashback, with chapter 27 then giving us more POV switches.
Chapter 28 describes an extramarital rendezvous that results in a scorned wife throwing her cheating husband out of the house – possibly the most non-surprising conclusion of a scene in the entire book.
In what would otherwise have been a great way to end the second act, chapter 29 is titled “The Riot,” giving away in advance what is about to happen in front of the courthouse on the eve of trial. After the dramatic riot scene we are given a rather unfortunate segue: “Across Westfield at Dottie’s house, she, Mike and Sarah were sharing a pizza.”
Mr. Wellman’s narrative style is inconsistent in other ways. Sometimes the dialogue is sharp, other times laden with exposition. Physical descriptions of characters are flat, consisting of height, age, hair color, marital status, and, if female, breast size. Many phrases are repeated within the same sentence or paragraph (as in the jacket copy, which mentions “states attorney” twice). In chapter 31, we are told for the third time that Shari is Gene’s assistant. It is in this chapter, titled “The Trial Begins,” that plot really kicks in. But what happens at the trial gives no surprises whatsoever due the previous flashbacks.
Chapter 33, “The Jury Deliberates,” is the best chapter in the novel. However, in chapter 34 we have POV switches again, followed by yet another flashback in chapter 35. This four-page flashback involves Jonathan, one of the jurors; in the next chapter, Jonathan has a conversation with another juror in which his resentments from the past are revealed in just a few short lines of dialogue, negating the need for the flashback in chapter 35.
Chapter 36, “More Jury Deliberations,” again presents good action and tight dialogue, but the final two chapters, titled “Four Weeks Later” and “One Year Later,” tie up the story way too neatly.
On the whole, the book’s pacing problem needs to be addressed (by using flashbacks briefly and only when germane to the plot) and a thorough copy edit performed (the states attorney says in his opening statement: “Hate crime legislation seeks to protect specific groups from undo victimization”). The narrative voice would be clearer if repetitive phrases were eliminated (starting with eight or nine instances of “guess we’ll find out” in the first few chapters), cliché word choices replaced (“The touch of his bare skin against her bare skin was more than exciting for Teri”), and the typos cleaned up (“You’re going to get a lot of flack”). There is a story in this book that would be interesting if it were allowed to breathe and executed on the basis of plot rather than theme. I give the book as-is a rating of two stars out of five.