Boulevard to a New World
“Sex-appeal is the keynote of our whole civilization.”
—Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Relgion
Newell has left Pastel, Alabama and everything he knows for the French Quarter of New Orleans, where according to the book’s cover he will discover “a new world.” New Orleans conjures thoughts of colorful debauchery and the novel does not disappoint. Grimsley is generous with the local color but never overtly panders with too much always keeping us in the Newell’s purview. The “new world” Newell discovers is the gay ghetto, and to no surprise Newell comes to terms with his homosexuality over the course of the novel.
Grimsley admits that he drew heavily from his life to create Boulevard. This forces me to ask, “Do we really need another pseudo-autobiographical Gay coming of age novel?” There are so many of these books for the gay population, and for the straight population TV shows like Will and Grace and Queer as Folk have sapped the titillating expose’ feel these books once had. Reading Jim Grimsley’s Boulevard suggests we do—to remind us of the light before the darkest dawn of AIDS.
Boulevard is steeped in nostalgia for the pre-AIDS, post-Stonewall gay ‘70s. The book transcends the basic coming out narrative by entering into a near fantasy world in which Newell never has to confront society. Once Newell leaves home, he leaves all of the difficulties of confronting his family with his sexuality. Even when he returns home for a visit, there is no tension because he will leave soon for his next gay adventure.
Newell becomes an almost legendary beauty in the French Quarter. At first, his looks are a fatal flaw causing discord around him but he learns to control them through his sexuality. With the exception of Louise, his lesbian landlady, everyone in Newell’s new life is there because of his beauty and sexual presence. His unattractive sidekick Henry accepts a platonic relationship after postulating that being associated with the sexy Newell may give him a better chance of scoring with other men. Miss Sophia, the elderly transgendered porn shop maid, is drawn to a silent desire and defense of him because of his looks. Even Mac, Newell’s heterosexual boss, is drawn to him because his innate homosexual gaze allows Newell to determine which pornos are going to be the most profitable.
Although never too gnawing, there is a sense of the Queer as Folk mindset of the only viable queer is the attractive gay male. This attitude is even carried to relegating interesting and seemingly important characters to minor status. This is the most disappointing aspect of Boulevard. We are teased with voices and stories like that of Miss Sophia and Louise, who is obsessed with her employee’s daughter. These characters break the homogenous depiction of male phalocentric sexuality regularly but seem like cameos. Even when the perspective turns to these characters, the chapter is short. This creates an imbalance in the overall flow of the novel. The first chapter, which focuses solely on Newell coming to terms with his sexuality, takes half the book. The following four chapters follow in quick succession. The point of view shifts and a new plot arises involving Mark, an acid-head ex-student who is on the precipice of the S/M lifestyle. After the initial narrative imbalance, Grimsley regains the story with his engaging prose.
The one short chapter devoted to Miss Sophia is thrilling. It is a journey into her alcoholic fog accompanied by the permutations of her sexual identity. At one point, she even confuses her male self with a fictitious husband. Miss Sophia’s acceptance of her age and ridicule is even compelling than that of Newell’s sexuality.
Still, the depiction of Newell is enjoyable since his way of accepting his sexuality forces him out of the ever-increasing safe gay mindset. He uses drugs, engages in unprotected sex with strangers. Even as Newell becomes blasé and world-worn, he still maintains the curiosity and forwardness that originally made him compelling. There is never any moralizing about Newell’s behavior, and it seems as if the picnic of pleasure will never end.
Towards the novel’s conclusion, there is a foreshadowing of the end. The typical clouds of punishment through disease and victimization appear briefly. AIDS in the form Kaposi’s sarcoma makes an appearance and after Newell disappears, there is a viable rumor of his murder. I began to expect an ending out of Gore Vidal’s City and the Pillar or Philadelphia. Thankfully, the ending was one of Newell’s continuing metamorphoses. Boulevard, despite its flaws, is a thoroughly enjoyable trip through Southern 1970s gay life.