Good Sex, Great Prayers by Brandon Tietz

All the way through this book I was enjoying a guilty secret, the way I always have with transgressive fiction. Good Sex, Great Prayers puts me in mind of something I read in a Brett Easton Ellis interview where he complained that a lot of stories are too caught up in decency. Anyone who agrees with that or feels like they do, or like me enjoys the train wreck effect of finding a book like this and thinking ‘How bad can it be?’ will find Good Sex, Great Prayers a more than satisfying antidote to ‘decent’ fiction.

Let’s not waste time talking about how this is not a book for the faint hearted. Let’s go straight for this: if a film were to be made of it, it would be the kind where the producers would demand pretty heavy cuts from the horror scenes before submitting it for rating classification. The narrative style, particularly in the sections written in the 1st person, points the camera straight at what the reader is supposed to look away from, and no details are spared. I would challenge anyone who went to see Hostel or Saw to get through this book without at least one good old grimace. Or at least one occasion where they show their friends that page and go for the good old gross-out contest. Yet for all the hard hitting luridness of Good Sex, Great Prayers, its biggest strength perhaps lies in how Brandon Tietz as the author has set out to do more than simply reach into the Palahniuk school of trying to out-write and out-shock himself, and written a story where the longer than normal length for a book like this earns its value.

Even though books that address the much debated and reinvented partnership between sex and religion are legion, I always have some measure of respect for an author brave enough to go there, even though most don’t succeed at producing anything meaningful. Brandon Tietz has earned a place among authors whose bravery paid off thanks to avoiding yet another book that descends into religion bashing or too much focus on religious people being horrified by any remote act of sex. Instead, we have a small town in America ‘hiding in plain sight,’ where the people often seem like hick/redneck stereotypes whose town has its own set of laws that they’ve decided on, but as their hidden lives come out and the reader gets to see what’s behind the mask, and like the protagonists Father Johnstone and Madeline Paige the reader is made to somewhat ‘compromise’ their judgement of the people of Pratt. It is not just religion that’s put under the spotlight in this book either, as even the men of science have to admit to a ‘grey area in between’ and question what they really believe because of what they see. We can think what we like about ‘Sunday Christians’ or fundamentally dedicated ones, but Good Sex, Great Prayers is a book where people’s need for faith and why they stick with it even after big questions make them think twice is explored in an enjoyably twisted way. ‘Beware of false prophets’ is very much the name of the game here, and what constitutes a false prophet very much depends on which character’s perspective you get at any one time, and even characters lacking in morals or decency hold the attention.

Few characters in this book are sympathetic in any way, but a certain amount of understanding is created in how they are a product of their environment and are resistant to anything or anyone who rocks the boat. Father Johnstone is a priest almost stereotypically pious, conforming and possessed of a fear of all things sensual that religious people I know would probably tell me is greatly exaggerated and largely a product of fiction mocking religion. Yet despite never getting to like him or see him a representation of what men of the cloth are really like, I wanted to see where the big shake-up of his life took him in this story, largely through his relationship with Madeline – a poster character for anyone who likes the strong yet vulnerable female lead whose past becomes more and more fantastical and rooted in powers the readers sometimes wishes they could possess over people.

The page turning quality of Good Sex Great, Prayers lay not so much in character development but in the gradual emergence of characters’ secrets and how they shaped a chain of events that brought a riveting climax in the last quarter, with a showdown worthy of any good horror writer and the kind of slow, slightly drawn out tying up of loose ends afterwards. To anyone familiar with certain narrative devices, the plot twists of this book are not so difficult to see coming, yet are still compelling enough thanks to the authorial craft behind them. Nothing comes out of nowhere – a statement of praise for a book in which fantastical powers grow more and more outrageous as the pages turn. Books that combine first and third person narratives sometimes come under criticism for the narrative switches spoiling the continuity, but Good Sex, Great Prayers is another title I can add to my list of books that use it for the right reasons. (I’d love to be more specific, but no spoilers). The only parts I would have cut were the excerpts from ‘recipe’ books which although in some way relevant I didn’t really pay much attention to. They felt like filler because something was always needed between the 3rd person sections, but this is only a minor complaint.

When I picked this book up I did not expect it to be as long as it was, but this to me became a pleasant surprise. Once I got past asking myself ‘how can you get a book this long on these ideas?’ and just read the thing, I discovered how: Tietz had not gone for a style as minimalist as I was expecting, and I was quite happy to read this. I have sometimes said that the irony of minimalist styles is that they smack of too much effort. Good Sex, Great Prayers has many beautiful one-liners, and the kinds of similes and comparative language in general that can only come from an author who has worked hard at their craft, but the narrative style built around it is unafraid of leaving meat on the bones rather than have it all stripped bare. Instead of striving for every line as an epiphany and flooding the reader with wow-effect until it becomes boredom-effect, Tietz uses these techniques more sparingly and with precision. I’m not usually a fan of alliteration, but I had to love the line about how someone was ‘blinder than a bat on a mug of moonshine.’ The speech of these characters is often captured in lines like that, with the author creating a wide variety of voices. The line ‘…he had a mean smile on him, that preacher did. Grinnin’ like a coon over a fish carcass’ is a great example of speech-style and character rolled into one.

A little anecdote, which doesn’t appear on Goodreads or Amazon because I don’t think you can curse in reviews on there: I hadn’t thought of it at all, but the night I finished the book I went down to the kitchen and made up my favourite food, a pan of good hot chilli, and halfway through stirring it caught myself smiling and thinking ‘Motherfucker, CHILLI DOG!‘ If you read the book, enjoy that scene. It seems to be the one reviewers keep quoting for a reason!

Check this book out if:

– You enjoy the thrill of seeing how much twisted content you can tolerate

– You got on with the likes of ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis, ‘Haunted’ by Chuck Palahniuk and ‘Crash’ by J G Ballard (GSGP isn’t the same as any of them but the readership probably is)

– You like studying the craft of writing and want to read the sort of stuff that craft essays on horror and transgressive are often talking about

– You like reading books you don’t want your family knowing much about you reading and hope they never look at (okay so I’ve posted a review; my secret’s out now!)

– You like slightly longer than average books the makes you wait for the climax for a while and then reward you with a mountain of gold

– You’re not too worried about ‘sympathetic’ characters but are more interested in what they do and the possibility they might become sympathetic later

– You like books centred around small town politics and people who are a bit of a ‘law unto themselves’

Overall this was a really good read and even if you don’t fit into any of the above categories, it’s a good way to challenge yourself.