The Surreal Love Story from the South: Musings on Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy
*This review ( and keep in mind, I use this term lightly) will be spoiler-free, and only key elements will be illuminated for the purpose of analysis. If, in any way, I reveal plot points that give away the ending, I shrug my shoulders in advance and say, “Sorry.” I tried.*
Additionally, before I begin this reflective post, I want to clarify a term I’ve used constantly in the last post: Gender-sexual minority (GSM). I first heard GSM in my senior year of college when I attended the Gay Pride meetings, and it seemed like a sensible word to describe any orientation other than straight. Out of respect for all sexual identities and genders (binary and non-binary), I’ll use this term, interchangeably with “queer”, in an attempt to include all non-heterosexuals, for lack of a better word. Personally, I have no issue with it, and I hope it’s an acceptable term for all readers.
That being said, let’s talk about Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy.
When someone asks me to give an example of queer fiction, Jim Grimsley’s morose tale from the South that is Dream Boy isn’t near the top of my list. I hadn’t heard of this novel at any point in my adolescence, even when I stumbled upon the 2008 film adaptation during that period. It was just another tale of forbidden gay love. On the surface, it’s a story about two young boys who fall in love and their constant struggle of sustaining their love amidst their peers’ suspicion. Honestly, it was a forgettable film, and after reading the source material, I’m excited at the prospect of a future adaptation, one that would build off the strengths and improve the weaknesses of the first one as well as respect the original work. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is the story receded into my mind, and I hadn’t thought twice about it until recently. I was strolling through the Quatrefoil Library, located in Midtown, when I found it in the Young Adult section. So I pick it up and gave it a read, and tragic as the novel’s tone and themes are my sentiments with the novel itself. I regret to conclude that it’s pretty much as forgettable as the film, though that shouldn’t infer that it doesn’t possess any redeemable qualities.
It’s important to clarify that this is my first Jim Grimsley novel. Although, from what I’ve heard about Winter Birds, his debut, both novels are as tragic and sad as anyone would anticipate in queer fiction. And yes, I have to admit I found the queer narrative to be cliched, which is perhaps why this novel isn’t as memorable to me as, say, Forster’s Maurice or Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. To be fair, the conventional storyline at least blends kind-spirited and tragedy while fleshing out intriguing characters. One of Dream Boy’s protagonists, Nathan, is a mild-mannered teenager who minds his own business and does his schoolwork with no intention to reveal his sexuality to his mentally-absent parents, both of which are, you guessed it, devoted churchgoers who read the Bible and are clearly religious. His father, an emotionally-distant and abusive figure, delves into the Word to distract himself from his failure and lack of control, and in turn distances himself from his family. His mother is the passive matriarch who turns a blind eye to the abuse of her son and seems to offer Nathan shelter only because it’s her duty. Roy, the other primary protagonist, is the carefree object of Nathan’s affection. Baseball player, calm, spontaneous, has a girlfriend, and a bus driver for Poke’s Road, the novel’s setting. Nathan and Roy fall in love, they deal with their attraction, they maintain facades to ward off any scrutiny, they get jealous, they have sex, Nathan’s father looms in the background, apt to prey on his son for his own gratification, and two plus two equals four, Barry Manilow is gay, blah blah blah.
Basically, it’s a generic queer tragedy. So why write about it? What more can be examined?
The framework/setting and Grimsley’s prose, that’s what.
It’s safe to assume most, if not all, stories have been told, hardly anything new under the sun. Innovate premises are rare to encounter. For me, what distinguishes stories from each other is how they’re framed, how the author/artist/director adapts or changes the cliches and tropes and crafts an unique twist or perspective on familiar storylines. The portrayal and framework of a story can make all the difference. For Grimsley, his framework and writing style is, to an extent, a saving grace. In this revision, Grimsley incorporates a sexual abuse subplot to Nathan’s arc which I find insignificant to the plot specifically, I’m sorry to say. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be that harsh. A mixed bag is more like it. True, the abuse subplot contextualizes the internal hurt and mistrust Nathan reserves for his environment, especially people and even Roy. However, as I stated before, it only works to an extent because it’s only mentioned to an extent. The subplot is dropped at the midpoint of the novel, and doesn’t necessarily have a satisfying resolution, at least one that shows any progression to the third act; and yes, I do have my issues with the third act, but revealing them unabridged will spoil the ending. Normally, I would overlook this since some of my favorite novels don’t have strong payoffs either, but with an incredibly touchy subject like sexual abuse and rape, I find it more disappointing than creatively ambiguous. The subject matter is too complex and disturbing to be condensed into a trope, and though Grimsley’s take isn’t the worst I’ve encountered, he certainly could have told it better.
Even with all that negative feedback, the abuse subplot does add a bit of dynamic to the conventional gay tragedy. At the very least, it adds nuance to Nathan as a character, his interaction with his environment, and his budding romance with Roy. It provides explanation to Nathan feeling like a social outcast and makes his union with Roy all the more poignant and affectionate. Instead of being told about the pain, it’s portrayed through Nathan’s actions, how he distances himself from his unloving parents, his initial unease when he meets Roy, when he and Roy first sleep together or how he clamors up the stairs to avoid facing his father. The subplot might not have a strong payoff in the end, but it certainly contributes to developing Nathan’s character and tension in his and Roy’s romance. Character development, sad as it is to say, seems to be easy to overlook, yet here it’s apparent Grimsley devoted himself to his protagonists. So two thumbs up. Good use of your subplot, novel.
Leading me to conclude that it’s Grimsley’s prose itself and not the narrative that lends this subplot, as well as the entire story, its worth. That prose’s strength is evident in the novel’s setting, and where the story falls flat, it’s resurrected through the lush imagery evoked through Grimsley’s keen eye to detail. Southern Gothic tropes, particularly the alcoholic father, the idyllic Poke’s Road, and Roy’s conservative, heterosexual high school friends Randy and Burke, are retrofitted for a contemporary audience and enhance Roy and Nathan’s hopeless setting. As much criticism as I’m directing toward the conventions that have been beaten into our psyche for decades, at least the romance has stakes. The gorgeous descriptions of the South’s topography are layered thick in the narrative, prominent like the gentle touch of wind on a crisp, autumn nature walk. It’s truly a delicious blend of splendid and grim imagery which constantly reflects the bittersweet yearning the boys reciprocate. The Kennicutt woods, the haunting enclosure the cemetery, the overwhelming expanse of the flat horizons and blazing orange sunsets, it’s all there. Almost like I can reach out and touch the gnarled bark on a tree or the peeling wallpaper of an abandoned house, and empathize with the confusing swell of emotions the protagonists experience as they fall in love. Such sorrow encompasses them, surrounding the two teenage lovers, and the imagery compliments the reality they are forced to accept. The woods and bountiful flora provide an escape whenever they grow tired of putting up a front. The element which embodies their collective sadness becomes their sanctuary, sacred like a church. And…well, if you know the typical tragic queer love story, I don’t need to spoil the ending, I’m sorry to state.
Speaking of which, about that ending. It’s perhaps the most polarizing aspect of the novel, based on readers’ reviews I’ve read. And understandably so. I’ll specify that it’s not specifically the ending that bothers me. It’s the third act in general. A hundred pages into the novel, I got the feeling that I was entering a different book. Heck, even a different story. It was a bit frustrating because the third act is the best part of the novel. The first half was, despite Grimsley’s wondrous articulation, slow. It was difficult getting through the exposition. Not that it’s lengthy. It just lingers too much on the mundane, minute details that don’t further the plot or any character development. The story doesn’t pick up until the two teenagers embark on a fateful camping trip, and the prose, if possible, becomes crisper and more nuanced, alerting the reader that a change is occurring, that some event will reverse or progress the course of previous events. The evidence of a twist is imminent. I suppose it’s up to the reader to determine if it paid off. Me? Eh…kinda. The resolution doesn’t feel like a resolution, yet that may well have been Grimsley’s intent. I do believe there is a line separating clever ambiguity and clumsy writing, and the ending, at times, shifts sides. I’m all for ambiguity but only if it’s written well, and I suppose Dream Boy left me craving for more.
Despite this, I’m thankful I read the novel. Again, Grimsley’s detailed Southern-town setting is the best part of the ending, if not the entire novel, and for what it’s worth, Nathan and Roy are decent characters with decent story arcs. I guess what I’m saying is…well, it could be worse. If you’re looking for a different LGBT-fictional work that incorporates pseudo-Southern-gothic undertones, Dream Boy fills that void.
As for the film adaptation, well, we’ll cover that another day. Perhaps time will soften my slightly harsh criticism. Really, though. I won’t hate anybody for loving this piece since I do understand why it would illicit such a devoted following, though I personally haven’t heard of one.
I’d love to hear other voices and perspectives on this novel, so feel free to agree, disagree, decry my thoughts as incompetent musings. Just keep it civilized.
Til next time, take care, stay safe and warm, and I’ll keep on pretending my opinion matters.