by JUSTIN TORRES (The author of the forthcoming novel We the Animals. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is now a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.)
This review reminded me of just how much I have always wanted to read this book. I hate to admit it, but I have only read one of Jim Grimsley's books, Boulevard. Boulevard is about the transformation of a country boy from Pastel, Ala., into a latter-day Narcissus, circa 1978, when to be young, pretty and gay was almost heaven. Newell, a sweet-natured country bumpkin who has never bought a newspaper or used an umbrella, finds a room in the French Quarter. His fresh good looks attract the attention of Curtis, the manager of the restaurant where he finds a job as a busboy, but he's fired when he rebuffs his boss's advances. Luckily, he's soon hired at a pornographic book store stocked with glossy, plastic shrink-wrapped magazines relating the photogenic adventures of phallically enlarged young men and with movies that are available for group showings in curtained booths. The magazines awaken Newell to his true sexual nature, but do little to prepare him for the new erotic events in his life. Other characters include Miss Sophie, nee Clarence Eldridge Dodd, New Orleans' ugliest transsexual, who cleans the place, and the owner's nephew, scary Jack, a sadist who eventually preys on Newell after Newell breaks up with Mark Duval, a Tulane grad student obsessed by the Marquis de Sade. Grimsley's attempt to capture the carnival decadence of that time and place is smoothly done through naeve Newell's gradual understanding of the environment he has entered.
In 1995, when I was a sophomore in high school, an older, popular boy came out of the closet. He was taunted daily until he dropped out. I never saw him again.
Months later, a decidedly unpopular, more flamboyant boy was beaten in the schoolyard. I remember escorting him to the nurse's office. I remember the look of disgust on the nurse's face; I don't know whether this disgust was directed at the act of savagery, or at the bleeding boy himself, and his arm around my shoulder. I also remember thinking that soon it would be my turn, and sure enough it was.
That same year, 1995, saw the publication of Dream Boy. In it, author Jim Grimsley confronts the violence of adolescent homophobia, but also, and maybe more importantly, he describes the emotional texture — the loneliness — of growing up queer, and the bravery and special intensity of finding love in a hostile environment. Grimsley demonstrates that two working-class boys loving each other, in the rural South, is an act as profound as it is simple.
I wish that back then someone had put this book in my hands. I didn't come to Dream Boy until nearly a decade later, at the suggestion of author Dorothy Allison, who insisted that it wasn't enough just to write the violence — that we need to write the tenderness as well. "Read Grimsley," she said; he's one who had gotten it right.
Dream Boy tells the story of Nathan and Roy. Nathan's troubled family relocates to a new home on Roy's family farm. Nathan is smart, shy and slight. Roy is two years older, strong and popular. He is pulled gravitationally toward Nathan. The first half of the book is written with devastating beauty; the language manages to be clear and precise while at the same time dreamy and incantatory.
The second half of Dream Boy takes us to a haunted house, and the book becomes a ghost story. This is a brilliant, unexpected turn, and Dream Boy is like no other book I've ever read. I won't say too much more here, because you must read this book, but I will say that Grimsley realizes literature is not bound to the laws of the physical world, and he makes the most of this. And though he writes about those on the margins, he is an inventive, masterful writer deserving of a universal audience.
We find violence and tragedy here, and some have labeled this book Southern Gothic. But as novelist Flannery O'Connor said, "Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do so with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes."
She continued, "I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up."
There is something of a national conversation going on about sexuality and bullying among adolescents. Nothing I have heard can touch the beauty and eloquence of Dream Boy. No argument for compassion is as convincing, and if you've suffered or are suffering from bullying, no platitude is as salutary as reading and rereading this book.
So read Dream Boy, if your heart is in the right place.
I really enjoyed Boulevard, which I read several years ago when it first came out. I loved that the character was from Alabama and Grimsley's descriptions of New Orleans's French Quarter are so rich and beautiful that you will fall in love with the city over and over again. After reading Boulevard, I had planned to read more of Grimsley's books, but for some reason, I never got around to reading any more. I hope you will check out either of these books. I know I will be reading Dream Boy as soon as I can get my hands on it.
Click "read more" below for a short biography of Jim Grimsley.
After moving to Atlanta he would spend nearly twenty years as a secretary at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital before joining the creative-writing faculty at Emory University. During those years, Grimsley wrote prolifically, with fourteen of his plays produced between 1983 and 1993.
Jim Grimsley is a playwright and novelist. Jim's first novel, Winter Birds, was published by Algonquin Books in 1994. The novel won the 1995 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and received a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. Jim's second novel, Dream Boy, won the American Library Association GLBT Award for Literature (the Stonewall Prize) and was a Lambda finalist. His third novel, My Drowning, was released in January 1997 by Algonquin Books and for it he was named Georgia Author of the Year. His fourth novel, Comfort & Joy, was published in October, 1999, and was a Lambda finalist. A fantasy novel, Kirith Kirin, was published by Meisha Merlin Books in 2000 and won the Lambda in the science fiction and horror category for 2001. He has published short fiction in The Ontario Review and Asimov's and his stories have been anthologized in The Year's Best Science Fiction, Volume 16, Men on Men 4, Men on Men 2000, and Best Stories From the South, year 2001. Boulevard, published in 2002 by Algonquin, was again a Lambda finalist in the literature category and won Jim his second Georgia Author of the Year designation. His novel, The Ordinary, a science fiction novel published in 2004 by Tor Books, won a Lambda in the science fiction/fantasy/horror category. His latest two novels are The Last Green Tree, published by Tor Books of New York in 2006, and Forgiveness, published by the University of Texas Press as part of the inaugural James. A. Michener Fiction Series. His new story collection, Jesus Is Sending You This Message, was published in September 2008 by Alyson Books.
Jim received the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Writers Award for his body of work in 1997, and has twice been a finalist for the Rome Prize Fellowship in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2003-2004). In 2005 he won an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He served as playwright in residence at About Face Theatre in Chicago under a National Theatre Artist Residency Program grant from Theate Communications Group/Pew Charitable Trust (1999-2004); he has been playwright in residence at 7Stages Theatre in Atlanta since 1986. In 1987 he received the George Oppenheimer/Newsday Award for Best New American Playwright for Mr. Universe. His collection of plays, Mr. Universe and Other Plays,was published by Algonquin Books in 1998, and was a Lambda finalist for drama.
His books have been translated into German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, and Japanese.