Perhaps the worst thing about Jim Grimsley's second novel, Dream Boy, is its title. It's cheaply erotic, smacking of an easy double entendre, and suggests none of the poetically tender and startlingly original story that follows.
The novel is about shy and small-boned Nathan, who has just moved into a farmhouse in the old Kennicutt Woods with his parents. Across a small field live their landlords, whose son, Roy, has a bedroom window that faces Nathan's. After a few weeks, Nathan develops a crush on Roy, and who can blame him? Roy has enough charm and sloe-eyed good looks to play the fabled boy next door, the boy with the wide smile and polite hands who regularly wins over parents and children alike. He even drives the local school bus, a position that brings him civic respect. Understandably, Nathan feels there isn't much he can do--he has heard vaguely about a blond girlfriend named Evelyn--but to long in the yellow light of his night window.
Then one day, while sitting behind him on the school bus, Nathan perceives the slightest signal of affection from Roy:
They sit in silence, and Nathan watches the back of Roy's head. A line of
red rises above Roy's collar, then subsides. Something has happened;
Nathan puzzles at what it might be. (5)
With subtle writing like this, Grimsley proceeds to construct a delicate romance between the two boys; their simple yet unequal relationship is based on teenage hunger and loneliness. While Roy's interest in Nathan rises and falls like the line of red on his neck, Nathan's clumsy love only continues to swell. This imbalance of commitment provides the story's early poignancy, tapping the reader with an unsentimental ping! of pain directly traceable to one's first love.
Grimsley is clearly interested in the natural environment--the slant of light, the sound of forest animals, the color of flora--to be found in this rural corner of the South. For example, he meticulously lists the wild plants discovered by Nathan in a field: "There are evening primrose, senna, asters, verbena, elecampane, gay feather, spiderflower, goldenrod, cone flowers, bottle gentian, ironweed, queen-of-the-meadow, boneset, yarrow, cornflowers, false foxglove, turtleheads, and sunflowers" (182). Throughout the novel Grimsley catalogues details like this, presenting a clean prose bare of excessive qualifiers but resonant with the honest beauty of facts. His spare writing almost always stands gracefully, only occasionally becoming awkward with choppy phrasing.
The short novel--it is arguably a novella--essentially has two parts: the initial chapters when the boys establish a routine of studying together and kissing in the Kennicutt graveyard, and the second half when they go off on a weekend camping trip with two friends from school, Burke and Randy. It is in the second half where the novel turns around the reader's assumptions about what kind of book this actually is. After a day of shirtless hiking and a night huddled in a rainstorm, the four boys discover an abandoned plantation house. Cracked open by a fallen oak and lit only by moonlight, the house is a gaping structure of mystery and eeriness. While stumbling around in the disorienting darkness, the boys are separated. At this point the novel quietly, like a ghost's footstep, abandons its linear and literal parameters, and a phantasmagoria of shadowy, faceless men appears. Eventually, one of the distantly familiar figures assaults and rapes Nathan, who detachedly suffers the blows as if he has always known it would come to this anyway:
It surprises Nathan, that he can hear his own skull crack. The last
motion he sees is the chair leg falling into the center of his face. A hole
opens up in his head, and the wind touches his brain. (174)
Someone not quite real has destroyed him, pushed him to the white edge of death, and then somewhere inexplicably beyond. Grimsley's skillful narrative makes the attack and its fantastic aftermath not only credible, but tragic.
Ultimately, Grimsley has crafted an admirably complex novel with a protagonist who is both passive and a hero. What started as a slim but touching novel about young love has opened into a magical tale of struggle and resurrection. Dream Boy reminds me of a red poppy: the stretch of the story is as neat and green and downy as the flower's stem. Who in the world, then, would expect such a pretty, simple structure to top itself off with a violently crimson burst of bloom? Grimsley has written a fresh and beautiful book.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1996|
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