Don’t you just hate it when you find a book with a cover so awful that you very nearly don’t read it at all? This happened with ‘Boulevard’ – the copy I picked up in the library had a photo of a young man on the front that was so ‘blond brain-dead Eighties porno-flick twink’ that I was embarrassed to take the book to the desk. In the end I sandwiched it between two duller tomes and got it home, and found that the contents are nothing like the cover.
Yes, this is a book that skirts around the sleazier aspects of queer life, but it’s so much more than porn. Yes, the hero could probably be described as a twink, but he isn’t blond and he certainly isn’t stupid.
‘Boulevard’ is set in New Orleans in the pre-AIDS 1970s, and tells the story of Newell, a young man from the sticks who’s come to the city for a job, some excitement, but mostly to find himself. At first he struggles – no job means no money, no money means nowhere to live, no fixed address means no job. But then he’s drawn to an adult bookstore in the gay quarter of town and finds work there, and his life starts to fall into place. He meets a wide variety of characters – ageing queen Henry, tragic transsexual Miss Sophia, druggie Mark, dangerous Jack – who open his eyes to the gay lifestyle and to his own burgeoning sexuality.
My eyes were also opened the more I read. By the time I discovered gay fiction AIDS was a permanent and tragic fixture in the world, and I was startled by the element of ‘gay abandon’ in these mens’ lives. The endless round of night-clubs and bars, the casual sex, the movie-booths at the back of the bookstore with their constant couplings (and treblings and quadruplings by the sound of it) – the gay world was clearly a very different place back then. As an inexperienced virgin Newell allows himself to be drawn into this colourful but seedy world, but he’s tougher than he first appears and can take care of himself.
Grimsley’s writing is amazing. In any other context this would be called literature; the fact that he’s writing about sleaze doesn’t detract from the elegance and sheer cleverness of his prose. The book’s structure, though, is odd, and it’s debatable whether this is a novel at all, or a collection of linked short stories. It consists of several separate sections, each a different length and each told from a different point of view. The first and longest, which takes us through Newell’s early days in the city and his search for work and a place to live, is easily the most engaging. After that the sections centre round some of the book’s other characters – people who are important to Newell or that he comes into contact with on a daily basis – but Newell himself is often only mentioned in passing. The penultimate section is, to be honest, a complete dog’s breakfast of head-hopping from one character to another, as the action heats up towards the climax and is seen in different ways by different people at the same time. I found this section particularly confusing as it’s not always clear where the switch is and who’s actually ‘speaking’. The only way to tell is by subtle changes in the style of the narrative.
The twist at the end is clever, and I’m still not entirely sure I know exactly what happened, but I don’t mind because it fits perfectly with the nature of the book, and the lifestyle and setting it describes. And that setting is every bit as important as the characters. The spirit of New Orleans, with its constant rain, its gleaming reflective pavements, its beautiful old buildings and its air of gentle decay, shines off the pages every bit as much as Newell’s pretty face. What a pity the publisher didn’t put something of that on the front cover instead.
First published in Forbidden Fruit magazine.