I read Boulevard during a heat wave and the Northeastern Seaboard blackout, so I felt as though I was living in the pages of this seamy/steamy novel. Jim Grimsley’s fifth novel is a story of self-discovery set in one of the world’s most unforgiving cities, New Orleans. The main character is Newell, a high school graduate from Pastel, Alabama, who embodies the term “country bumpkin.” Newell is cute, naïve and gay. He lucks into a job at a pornographic bookstore after being fired from a restaurant because his good looks cause a ruckus among the staff. Yes, at first I too thought it read like a script from a gay porn video (handsome naïve virgin stumbles off a bus in a strange city and moves into the heart of the gay village – let the games begin!) but alas, it was not to be. It is unlikely that someone like Newell actually exists. I kept myself from dismissing Grimsley’s entire plot by constantly reminding myself that the story is set in 1976 and perhaps back then it was possible for a gay runaway not to end up dead in a crime-riddled city.
Essentially Boulevard is a coming-of-age story with a twist; think Midnight Cowboy meets Big Easy with a dash of Oliver Twist and you’ll get an idea of what Newell’s world is like. To say that Newell’s time spent in New Orleans is educational would be an understatement. Grimsley manages to capture the golden age of gay culture: post Stonewall, pre-AIDS, as well as the seamier yet wildly intriguing side of New Orleans.
Newell has the gumption to hop on a bus and follow his dream, yet he is as passive as a leaf in a stream once he settles into his new life. The novel is populated with one-dimensional characters, and Newell’s passivity quickly became annoying. However, if Grimsley has done this on purpose to portray the hollowness of a sub-culture as seen through Newell’s eyes then it works beautifully. Newell’s journey is neither sepia-toned nor filtered through gossamer -- it is reality-based. He is in New Orleans to explore his sexuality and, as any good student knows, asking questions is essential. With a refreshing frankness, Grimsley enrolls Newell in Intro to Homosexual Sex 101 and follows his exploits.
Although fictional, the novel does provide a peek into the confusing and dangerous territory of exploring one's sexuality in a foreign environment –- talk about taking teen angst to the next level. Boulevard is not a gay sex romp; this is not Tom Jones or Fanny Hill with page after page of sexual cavorting, but a more realistic portrayal of a character surrounded by shallowness. What saves this novel is that Newell’s character goes through many transformations, from innocent adventurer to passive waif to triumphant survivor.
If I had to describe Boulevard in two words, they would be "gritty fluff." I give it 2 ½ stars.