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Art of darkness

Jim Grimsley searches for the shadow -- and the light -- in his new novel


Give Jim Grimsley 10 minutes of your time and you'll completely forget everything you thought you knew about him. His warm and ebullient nature contradicts the cool minimalist voice of his writing. His essential vitality casts doubt on the fact that this is a man who should be dead, who's lived with hemophilia for 46 years and HIV almost half that time.

With a glowing, ruddy complexion, wiry auburn hair and a talent for throwing an off-color joke into every fourth sentence, Grimsley in person gives no hint of the dark and often brooding worlds he writes about -- from meditations on surviving poverty in rural North Carolina to prurient explorations of sado-masochism.

"I don't have to write against adversity anymore," Grimsley says, "I'm so well taken care of here." By here he means Emory University, where the acclaimed Southern author and playwright teaches creative writing.

Sitting in shadow in his second-story office in Callaway Memorial Hall that overlooks a sunny swatch of the Emory quad, Grimsley speaks with the poise and erudition of a seasoned professor. Never mind that he's only held this teaching position since 1999, that he spent almost two decades working a series of secretarial jobs at Grady Memorial Hospital, his writing relegated to a side pursuit.

But these days the writing -- in one form or another -- gets his full attention. This month his newest novel, Boulevard, will be published by Algonquin Books. The book, like the author, is a contradiction. It begins as fresh-faced Alabama boy Newell Kerth arrives in New Orleans, eager to dive into the city's steamy pool of sexual discovery, circa 1976. But Grimsley gradually shifts the book's focus, shedding light on a particular place in time when what he calls "The Party" was still raging, when the gay rights movement and the sexual revolution had not yet been sideswiped by the AIDS epidemic.

It's a setting the author knows intimately, having lived in New Orleans himself immediately after college. But he insists that Boulevard is not autobiographical, that he and Newell have little in common. Grimsley's intentions are greater than Newell's coming-of-age story; the protagonist travels a dimly lit alley into the underworld of New Orleans, with detours into S&M sex, schizophrenia and even slavery, but arrives at a none-too-subtle love letter to a gritty city, warts and all.

Though Boulevard may be dark, it has already been called his most hopeful work in recent memory. And therein lies the essential paradox of Jim Grimsley: finding the hope, the good, the essential redemption in even the darkest situations. It's a metaphor for most all of his literature, and for his life.

Almost everything Grimsley has written has been perceived as autobiographical. That's partly his own fault, he says. He drew openly from his own history when creating the character of Danny Crell, the protagonist of his first novel, Winter Birds, and its sequel, Comfort and Joy.

My Drowning came from the spooky stories his mother and aunt told about their childhoods, and Dream Boy returns to the author's adolescent landscape of longing and loss.

Grimsley grew up in abject poverty in the flat east country of rural North Carolina, his father an alcoholic who later committed suicide. His hemophilia fostered an early love of reading -- and writing.

"Being sick actually helped because it kept me still," he says. "With hemophilia, I had to be careful how I played so that I wouldn't get hurt."

That prescription for inactivity gave him plenty of time and opportunity to read science fiction and comic books, and write his first short stories.

In high school Grimsley started a couple of novels, but his writing didn't flourish until he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Under the tutelage of writing coaches Doris Betts and Max Steele, Grimsley honed his fiction and started journaling. He also began Winter Birds.

Grimsley graduated with honors in 1978 and decided, randomly, to move to New Orleans, taking an apartment on Dumaine Street just down the block from some of his favorite bars. It was in one of those bars, on the dance floor of a late-night disco, that he got the idea for Boulevard. If you lingered at the disco long enough, he observed, all the bartenders from all over the French Quarter eventually came in at the end of their shifts. He began crafting the tale of Newell's arrival in the Crescent City, but the book would lie fallow for the next 20 years.

In 1980, Grimsley moved to Atlanta, first working temp jobs, then settling into a position at Grady.

The next year he met Del Hamilton, co-founder of 7 Stages Theatre.

"It's an old, old deep friendship," Grimsley says. "Del's caused more good accidents to happen for me than I can tell you about in one sitting."

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