COMFORT AND JOY
By Jim Grimsley
Algonquin. 291 pp. $21.95
Coming to grips with being gay, coming out to one's parents, finding true love against societal and familial odds, dealing with HIV -- Comfort and Joy, Jim Grimsley's new novel, manages to hit all these staples of modern gay literature, and then some. There's nothing here that hasn't been done before, but Grimsley tells his story of mismatched lovers nimbly and with no small amount of charm, charting their relationship through a series of Christmases.
Dr. Ford McKinney is the only son of an old-money family of Savannah Brahmins. A physician at an Atlanta hospital, Ford is well-respected, well-liked and certainly well-off (he travels only first-class, even on flights of less than an hour). What he isn't is well-adjusted; McKinney is gay, a fact with which he's just coming to grips, clumsily and uneasily.
The other half of this odd couple is Danny Crell -- a character first introduced as a child in Grimsley's debut novel, Winter Birds. (Unlike Winter Birds, fortunately, Comfort and Joy isn't told in the second person.) The now grown-up Danny is an administrator at the same hospital where Ford practices. Danny is also a son of the South, but raised far from the rare air and manicured squares of Savannah society. Born into rural poverty, he's the son of an abusive, now-dead father and a long-suffering mother who ekes out a living tending a country graveyard. Danny bears wounds both psychical and physical; on top of everything else, he's hemophiliac and HIV-positive from one of his many transfusions.
Rich man, poor man, with little in common but sexual orientation. But when Ford hears Danny sing at a hospital Christmas concert, their unexpected courtship begins its bumpy, uncertain ascent. Grimsley draws a deft portrait of falling in love in fits and starts, discovering the rough edges and raw parts of one another, learning how to deal with them. Ford's earnestness and surprising eagerness aren't always enough to overcome his ambivalence about being gay, despite his desire for and attraction to Danny. For his part, Danny is equally irritated and humbled by Ford's background, and sensitive about his own hemophilia and HIV status.
But Grimsley is ultimately more concerned with the skein of family relationships, how the past affects the present, and how echoes of the problems in the biological family can resonate within a chosen family. Danny is nervous about how his mother and blue-collar stepfather will accept Ford, and Ford is even more concerned about how his society-conscious parents, who continue to try to set him up with "suitable" women, are going to accept a common-law son-in-law. After a trip home, he tells Danny, "The whole visit was like an essay on why I should marry well, and there I was, very quietly trying to tell them that I'm not the marrying kind."
Ford is too quiet, of course, as he's always been. The matchmaking and hectoring don't stop, and Ford is finally forced to admit, "This mess with my family is getting out of hand. I think my parents' solution to this is going to be to make me choose between them and you." The weakest part of Comfort and Joy -- and, unfortunately, the focus of the last part of the novel -- is Ford's coming out to his parents, which is anticlimactic simply because Grimsley's portraits of Dr. and Mrs. McKinney never venture beyond two-dimensional caricatures.
Lord knows that the South is still home to plenty of old-money families who communicate only with Scotch and subtext, but the McKinneys are so emotionally constipated that it's a wonder Ford was conceived in the first place. (Grimsley does a much better job sketching Ford's feisty sister Courtenay, who's supportive of Ford's relationship in theory but becomes more reserved when faced with the real thing.) The McKinneys are reduced to soap-operaish pronouncements like "You are no children of mine" and "Get out of my house this minute," and it's a shame that Grimsley couldn't find some shade and nuance in these unlikable people. Much better is Danny and Ford's Christmas visit to the Crells, a long sequence with some genuinely complex, resonant emotions. Even when Comfort and Joy founders, though, Grimsley has a steady hand with the beautifully turned sentence, and his mature, sympathetic but rarely sentimental eye for the warp and woof of relationships should please his old fans and gain him some new ones.
Kevin Allman is the editor of WHERE New Orleans. His novel "Tight Shot" was nominated for Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America.