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[whitespace] 'Joy'-ful: Jim Grimsley's poignantly charged fourth novel irradiates Christmas.

Out of Leftie Field

Jim Grimsley's 'Comfort and Joy' breaks out of a niche

By Elizabeth Costello

In their review of Comfort and Joy, Publisher's Weekly said, "This book promises to be [Jim Grimsley's] breakthrough to a wider audience." Such a statement says more about niche book markets than it does about Grimsley's fourth novel. While it seems obvious that readers seek out writers to illuminate their own experiences, the audience for a given book relates more to the way the book is sold to the public than it does with some inherent "gayness" in a novel. So while Grimsley is--in Nabokov's words--a male "sexual leftie," Comfort and Joy possesses a lot of the qualities that are supposed by many to distinguish the writing of "women writers" from "writers." Women are the ones who are supposed to focus their writing on interpersonal relationships, to be character-driven and more interested in the small, domestic, and emotional than in the historical, abstract and philosophical. By this fallacious logic, Comfort and Joy is a women's novel.

And all the better for it, as Grimsley is very adept at characterization. Though his prose style is wooden and stilted, his characters are believable. The novel focuses around the relationship between Dan Crell, a singer and hospital administrator, and Ford McKinney, a pediatrician. Dan is from the poor backwater of North Carolina, while Ford hails from an old-money Savannah family. As you might guess, the old Savannah family is particularly unwilling to face their son's homosexuality and they spend much of the book in denial and in an effort to arrange Ford's marriage to some suitable debutante. Dan's family, on the other hand, proves far more accepting of his real self. Dan is an HIV-positive hemophiliac with a background of loss and abuse. This book doesn't make clear exactly what traumatized him as a child, but it refers to some horrible happenings at the hands of his long-dead father. Fans of Grimsley's first novel, Winter Birds, may remember the young Dan Crell and have a better understanding of the difficult events that shaped his childhood.

Grimsley's strength lies in his eye for minute emotional detail. He writes in a plain style, as if he were a reporter on the beat of human emotional response. While his prose lacks lyricism, he is a reliable observer of familial tensions. It's no wonder that his first two novels, Winter Birds and Dream Boy, were adapted for the stage. An actor could easily decipher his part in a scene like the following one, where Ford gets to know Dan's stepfather, Ray:

Ford said, "My dad has a shop. And there's plenty of room in my basement for one, if I knew what to do to get started."

The pause lengthened. Dan could tell Ray was considering the thing, turning it over. After a while he pushed back his chair and stood, saying to Ford, "Come on out and look at my shop."

While I found the novel plausible, Grimsley's pacing is troublesome. Some scenes have a grocery-list quality, dragging in too much information about mundane goings-on in the characters' lives. In other scenes, Grimsley rushes through several months in a paragraph:

"Summer brought the beginning of the last year of Ford's residency, a promotion for Dan, and a new car. They fought about money, the house, Courtenay; they went to gay bars and Ford got all the attention; Dan came home jealous and threw plates. They had a dinner party for Ford's friends and one for Dan's."

Part of the reason for this rushing and dragging is that the defining moments of Dan and Ford's relationship occur over a series of Christmases. In many ways this makes sense as a framing device, but it makes the months in between one holiday and the next somewhat difficult for Grimsley to deal with.

Comfort and Joy is very much a novel of the '90s. Grimsley often discusses his characters' "inner child" and uses other bits of contemporary psychobabble. The fact that a niche market for gay writers has been created by publishers attests to the progress that has been made in gay rights since the days when Giovanni's Room shocked American audiences.

However, in some ways this is a universal and timeless story about human beings learning to live honestly with themselves and with one another. This is not a brilliant novel, but it is a believable and compassionate one .

Algonquin Books, 291 pages, $22.95.

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From the February 21, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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