Boulevard: A Novel of New Orleans
Jim Grimsley's fifth novel, set in New Orleans in 1976, seemed an obvious choice for me to subject to review: I've long admired his work, and gave a favorable review to his collection, Mr. Universe and Other Plays in these pages several years ago. Moreover, I live in New Orleans, and have written both a novel (Town Full of Hoors, online) and numerous columns about the city and its culture; and while not gay myself, I am familiar with Nola's homosexual community, close-knit as it is with the rest of the town's society as a whole, and while I treat this aspect satirically in my novel (along with everything else about the place), my many gay friends and acquaintances in New Orleans, like many of their counterparts in San Francisco and New York and elsewhere, are not "marginalized" as perhaps they once were or seen as a "subculture" (as I'm told was the case for many of them in the South twenty-five or so years ago), but in many ways are the pulse of the city's artistic community, and its other communities, as well. And, like Grimsley's protagonist, Newell, I'm originally from Alabama, where these things are still very much "underground," and most certainly were in the 1970s.
But a writer of the caliber of Jim Grimsley is no more a "gay" writer than Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, regardless of what his subject matter may be, and were anyone to suggest otherwise, I would take umbrage on his behalf, as his work here as elsewhere transcends its ostensible themes, like that of the other aforementioned writers, both of whom are also associated with New Orleans—and the list could and does go on. I say this in anticipation of narrow and spurious "arguments" by those who haven't (and probably don't intend to) read what may be Grimsley's finest and certainly most ambitious novel to date, while acknowledging that the subject matter is both a valid and realistic depiction of an aspect of human experience, appreciable by most literate and intelligent readers for any number of their own subjective reasons, a fact that speaks highly of Mr. Grimsley's facility as an artist.
That facility is evident to the reader from the opening paragraph, and from the very first pages of the book—lyrical and atmospheric, like most of Grimsley's prose, yet solid, specific, and never overblown, which is a trap many writers of the small "genre" of "New Orleans Novels" seems to instantly fall prey to, especially if they live there, which Grimsley does not. But he sure knows the city, complete with its peculiarities, eccentricities and crannies and nooks of sordidness and of beauty, all of which he describes with a smooth and seemingly effortless, undistracting dexterity which reveals him at once as a master of his craft and a genius at evoking a "local color" of characterizations previously reduced to a certain shallow parody of the real by other Nola Novelist Notables—Percy (awkward and anal), Toole (who stereotyped the place so well he couldn't ever write of it again, or anything else), Williams (lots of disjointed boozy ramblings, save for his brilliant and underrated play "Vieux Carre"), Anne Rice (fantasy of a place Nola never was), Codrescu (who thinks he is New Orleans, and there's a word for that in Greek Tragedy), and the countless other hacks and Competent Hacks who trade on the idea that the city is a breathing paradox, which, though they never put it very well, is not a new idea. Jim Grimsley is the best writer of all of these, surpassing even the hyperbolic realism of Nelson Algrens's Walk on the Wild Side: perhaps the wildest thing about New Orleans is, in a sense, that it's just as mundane or more so than Tulsa, which Grimsley understands, and that, you see, is what drives you headlong into the swamp.
Yet such masterful writing as this is a pacing set-up for an entertaining, disquieting and quite engaging story, which is also quite often hilarious. My personal knowledge of the porn shop and S&M and dope scenes that flourish in Nola's (then as now) Lower French Quarter and Fauborg Marigny and those involved in such activities is none of your business, save to say that Grimsley has got it down, without losing control of situation of character one iota. And as Newell makes his tentative and naive way into it, so does the reader. The writing is seductive and tantalizing, like the acts of an expert Dom—sensitive, perceptive, stinging, and thrilling in the process. I hope the author recognizes the high degree to which this is a compliment when he reads this. I rather expect that he will.
Grimsley is equally as capable of evoking sadness, which is never bathos but realistic in a way that renders the implied isolations of other characters in the work of the authors mentioned above to the forced and seam-evident constructs they ultimately are. And in this book there's plenty of it, but its descriptions are executed so tastefully and even subtly as to seem all the more . . . realistic. As for what happens in the book, and its closure, it is not suspenseful nor is it meant to be; neither is it simple existential capitulation, either. It just works. The novel stands, and it stands tall, complete with a truthful landscape occupied by very real and believable characters who we all feel that we know, because we do.
So to close what, for me, is a rather lengthy review, and without doing what I dislike most in reviews (obtrusive delving into the specifics of the story), I, as a New Orleanian, published novelist and a man who has, above all, seen, proclaim this novel a real winner, no matter if you live in New Orleans or visit there or if you're a day-trader in Fairbanks, Alaska. But if you were planning a "New Orleans Novel," or even something remotely like it, and have read up on the literature such a scene has inspired and weighed it and found it somehow wanting in the balance, now, before you presume to try, you had better read Boulevard. And you also might want to think twice about hopping the next bus from your town to go get a room on Barracks Street. Or maybe you won't.
Because that's how good Jim Grimsley is.