Embedded right in the center of the new collection of stories edited by Nick Hornby, Speaking with the Angel, is a story by Hornby himself. “NippleJesus” is the title of the work which is narrated by Dave, a bouncer and art museum security guard. The story is a seamless interweaving of separate themes and agendas through the central character of Dave. Hornby tackles religion, politics, sex, family and financial responsibility, and art and its relationship with the individual, the artist, and society through a “six foot two and fifteen stone” security guard whose only skill is being big (Hornby 99). The most powerful aspect of “NippleJesus” is Hornby’s development and exploration of Dave as a character shaped by the events within this story.
A cursory examination of the rest of the collection of stories reveals some interesting contrasts between not only Hornby’s treatments of similar themes, but also contrasts between the character of Dave and other narrators. A brief examination of these contrasts should help to illuminate the significance of Dave to Hornby’s treatment of the aforementioned themes.
John O’Farrell’s short story, “Walking into the Wind”, deals with similar themes of family responsibility as well as art and its relationship to the individual, the artist, and society. One interesting contrast is the reaction of O’Farrell’s narrator, Guy, to the security of his family and Dave’s reaction in a similar situation. When Guy’s wife confronts him saying, “you’re forty-one years old…I don’t think you should be a mime artist anymore,” Guy responds by saying “There comes a point in a man’s life when he must face up to his responsibilities; when he has to put his family first and sacrifice the dreams he had when he was young and carefree” (O’Farrell 223). Guy is not sincere however with this confession. He later confesses that such a theme would be the subject of his next mime, “’Sell Out in the Suburbs’” (O’Farrell 223). This attitude is in stark contrast to Dave who responds to the needs of his family by saying, “I’m a family man. I can’t have people waving rusty spikes at me at two in the morning” (Hornby 102). Even though Dave confesses that he’s “thirty eight, [he has] no trade and no qualifications, and [he is] lucky to get a job headbutting cokeheads outside a club,” he still seeks to find new employment, even if the job is as unusual as an art gallery security guard (Hornby 100).
Guy is an egocentric mime artist. Dave is a security guard, but from their attitudes towards the respective art in each story, Dave stands out as the better man. Why? It is not because he understands the art better, in fact several passages at the end of Hornby’s story suggest his interpretation of the art was far from the artists or anyone else’s interpretation. Guy on the other hand can clearly explain the purpose and content of his art, though his friends mistake the chopping of the rain forest to be a rendition of “Jack and the Beanstalk” (O’Farrell 218). Rather Dave stands out as the better man because of his lack of pretension. It is Dave’s desire to interpret the picture of Jesus made from nipples as something beautiful, as art. Guy on the other hand is egocentrically preoccupied with himself, the artist, as opposed to art.
Another strong thematic element of Hornby’s story is the problem of sex and religion. Interestingly enough, Irvine Welsh’s story from the same volume, “Catholic Guilt (You Know You Love It) provides the reader with a completely different take on the relationship between sex and religion than Hornby does. In “NippleJesus” a religious icon is created from the materials of common pornography. The picture, as Dave puts it, reminds the viewer that “Christ is where you find him” (Hornby 122).
Welsh’s story shows a completely different relationship between religion and sex. Even the title of Welsh’s story, “Catholic Guilt” suggests the nature of the relationship: that religion has stained sexuality with guilt, that it is detrimental, and that if we hope to make it from this world to the next we must be eradicated of the guilt that accompanies sexual behavior tabooed by religion. At one point Welsh even has a St. Peteresque character condemn Joe, the narrator, to “walk the earth as a homosexual ghost buggering your old mates and acquaintances” (Welsh 204). The St. Peter character does not stop there, he goes on to inform Joe that he is “going to watch and laugh at [Joe] being crippled by guilt” (Welsh 204). It seems Welsh is suggesting Joe’s misogynistic and homophobic tendencies are the direct result of religion.
Hornby, by contrast, does not subject Dave to such a radical fate. The result is a much calmer view of religion that examines the individual’s freedom to interpret religion in different ways. The closest thing Joe ever has to the freedom to decide how religion and sexuality relate to each other himself is whether or nor to enjoy “buggering [his] old mates” (Welsh 204). As in our first comparison, Dave again finds himself the better man. This time it is Dave’s ability to draw his own conclusions about sexuality and religion, which are markedly different from not only the artist and society, but his own wife as well. Joe was never given such a chance. This reveals a more developed, well rounded character in Dave than we get of Joe. Hornby’s presentation of themes through a more rounded character give them more weight than Welsh’s fantastical story can through a less developed Joe who seems more like a device for Welsh than a character.
These contrasting comparisons to other stories mean nothing in themselves unless they lead to a deeper understanding of “NippleJesus” and the purpose of Dave, the story’s narrator. The deeper understanding that can be gleaned is this: it is Dave’s inner strength that brings to Hornby’s story a humanistic quality that makes it stand out by comparison. Guy is an egocentric artist who is not cared about by the characters in O’Farrell’s story or the reader. Joe is a device. He serves to critique religious born guilt in Welsh’s story, but he cannot, because of the limitations Welsh has set for him, bring the authenticity of a character as well developed and sincere as Dave.
Dave’s most revealing speech underlines the strength he brings to Hornby’s story: “Seeing Christ on the floor with his face all smashed in like that...it was really shocking…I’ll tell you, if I was religious, and I thought that there was a hell where serpent suck your eyeballs out and all that, I wouldn’t go round stomping all over Jesus’ face. Jesus is Jesus, isn’t he? No matter what you make him out of” (second ellipses mine) (Hornby 122). Here we see why Dave works. It is not because he is religious, for he tells us he is not. It is not because he has a superior understanding of art, his interpretation of the piece was unique and we are given no reason to believe that his interpretation is the one Hornby aligns with his own interpretation. Dave works because of his inner strength that shows through in his reaction to the events in the story and the themes they symbolize. He responds to his emotions with action. He feels responsible to his family. He understands the holiness of religion without prescribing faith. He is the backbone of Hornby’s story. He is the reason why Hornby’s presentation of the themes of religion, sex, family, and art are so much more memorable than other presentations within this volume of stories.
Hornby, Nick. “NippleJesus.” Speaking with the Angel. Ed. Nick Hornby. New York: Riverhead, 2000. 98-125.
O’Farrell, John. “Walking into the Wind.” Speaking with the Angel. Ed. Nick Hornby. New York: Riverhead, 2000. 207-231.
Welsh, Irvine. “Catholic Guilt (You Know You Love It).” Speaking with the Angel. Ed. Nick Hornby. New York: Riverhead, 2000. 185-206.
Ben Zoltak from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on November 16, 2010:
Very cool Cdubb, you are a wonderfully eloquent writer and observant critic. I hope I write a piece that warrants the same potent analysis in one of my own stories one day.