Boulevard - Jim Grimsley (author of Comfort and Joy)
One of the criteria that I think makes a good book is that you’re still thinking about it long after you’ve read it—still thinking about the characters and still hearing the echoes of the novel.
Boulevard is that kind of book. Newell, the hero, interested me from the start, and I was thinking of him all day when I’d finished.
Just out of high school, arrived only with a map, a few dollars and his burning need to make it in the city, Newell leaves Alabama and his grandmother for New Orleans, for a life he only hazily understands but yearns to have.
Bit by bit, his determination to succeed enables him to overcome all the setbacks that such a life can offer until he rises to the top of his own small world—working in a sex shop and admired and wanted by all who come across him.
Told from his point of view, as well as from that of other men he meets along the way, the book pulls you in as forcibly as the city itself does. New Orleans in the early 1970s: gay sex and drugs—it’s a modern day heart of darkness and its allure is no less destructive to those that encounter it.
There is not one character in this book that is not damaged in some way, and whether they’ve come to New Orleans because of that damage—drawn to its hedonistic brightness like moths to a flame—or whether the city and its way of life damages them is open to debate. When you read a book like this, you can actually see the seeds of the gay-plague germinating in this fertile soil.
In an interesting analogy, the author dips into some of the city’s history and you have to wonder if a lifestyle built on the misery slavery could ever produce something good. The tales of a New Orleans slave owner, told as part of the novel, contrasts painfully with these men—enslaving themselves just as completely to their destructive lifestyles.
If you do not sit riveted by the last twenty pages of this book, then I wonder if you have a heart. I had to escape to the garden to read it undisturbed.
I’m still thinking about it, and that makes this a very good book to me.
I was confused by this book. I really wanted to read it, because I so adored “Comfort and Joy”, to which I felt a strong emotional connection. This novel on the other hand frequently left me going “Huh?”, and never quite engages in the same way. I couldn’t help comparing this book, unfavourably, with Poppy Z Brite’s coverage of similar ground.
I liked its main character, Newell, and wanted him to succeed. There’s no romance element to this story of one gay man’s search for his sexual identity, but we meet a varied cast of vivid characters, and there’s a solid story. The opening section, in Newell’s POV, stands out for me, from the fresh youth’s arrival off the bus from Alabama, struggling through early days with no money living off cold canned soup to stay in the city of his dreams. New Orleans is like another character, a vital, sensual, intoxicating, but menacing presence, the sights, sounds and history of the place brought to life by Grimsley.
Then begins a series of POV shifts that carries through to the end. I wanted to stay with Newell, and I thought the switches broke the narrative flow. Okay, maybe it’s a deliberate ploy giving us credible connections to link the different parts of this book; but I never quite settled again in the same way. The book is structured and stylised, maybe too self-consciously. It’s hard to miss hints of darkness to come. I don’t want to spoil the story by revealing too much here. It’s a dangerous world Newell is living in, this “country of men”. His old grandma back home knows that, and Louise his lesbian landlady.
It’s the late 70s, a time when gay culture was only beginning to make itself known. Newell is a complex character. A high school graduate, he likes good quality gay porn and reads books on architecture and history of New Orleans in his spare time. He hardly plunges into a life of excess, but watches and waits, learning from the movies he sees in the video booths of the adult bookstore where he works- can you really learn to give such satisfaction purely through avid consumption of porn?
The air of New Orleans is tainted by the excesses of its slave-owning past, cleverly integrated into the story through Mark, historian and boyfriend. Newell is drawn into an underworld of sex and drugs. Foreshadowing of BDSM leads into disturbing ground, leaving you guessing to the end if Newell will navigate the murky waters or descend to bottom.
The novel is easy to read, and Grimsley an interesting writer, but doesn’t quite work. More than distracting POV shifts, I was irritated by gaps in the narrative. Newell takes up with Mark, but we don’t know they’re boyfriends until we’re told they’re not anymore, or how much time has passed. Once we leave Newell’s perspective he’s seen through the eyes of people who don’t know him well. Plainly he’s having experiences we know nothing about, to explain how he’s transformed from naïve newcomer unable to identify hustlers under his bedroom window. There’s a scene near the end, a sexual encounter that determines the character’s fate, yet it’s quickly glossed over so the ending seems abrupt and tacked on. Maybe Grimsley drew back from the explicit material required to make sense of Newell’s decision or felt it was best left to our imagination.
Despite flaws that should’ve been fixed by a rigorous edit, I can recommend the book, because of Newell, his story of backwoods innocence corrupted by the fleshpots of the big city, and its convincing (to me anyway) evocation of late 70s, pre-AIDS New Orleans.
Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. ISBN: 1565124006Buy from Lambda Rising Booksellers from the States
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