Ford McKinney and Dan Crell have always spent Christmas apart, with family, but this year Ford suggests they forget everyone else and spend the holiday together, alone. Dan replies, "'I don't think either of us will feel better then. If I could forget my family, I would have done it a long time ago.'" Comfort & Joy
by Jim Grimsley (Algonquin Books of Chapel
Hill, $21.95) Following the highly acclaimed Dream Boy (1997) and Winter Birds (1994), Comfort & Joy is Jim Grimsley's emotional powerhouse about family, relationships, and, above anything else, love—not the love felt for a passing fling or a casual friend, but the tough, aching knot that binds lovers and families together for years. Ford, a doctor, and Dan, a hospital administrator, work in the same building and sleep in the same bed. Grimsley's novel traces, via memory, their separate and shared histories as they spend their holiday in Dan's mother's North Carolina trailer home. Dan, an HIV-positive hemophiliac, owns a childhood stretching over "devastated landscape, ruined farms, and collapsing shanties," shadowed by an abusive father. For the most part, he has emerged unscarred: He knows who he is, and he knows he wants a life with Ford. Although Ford owns a seemingly more fortunate past in a large white house that boasts one annual Christmas tree in the front for neighbors and one in back for family, he also carries the burden of an assumed "duty" to a family of wealthy Savannah Georgians "with so much of its history preserved." And it doesn't help that the closeted Ford knows he needs Dan in his life, especially since he struggles with the belief that "'Men don't do . . . kissing good-bye in airports and all that stuff.'" By grappling with their pasts and present, the two men must decide the future of their relationship and undergo the trial of revealing themselves completely to one another as well as to their families. Comfort & Joy's biggest strength lies in its subtlety. While many writers search for message by plodding through the thick of their plot and descriptive prose, Grimsley and his characters have the uncanny ability to sit back, watch, and listen as the message reveals itself to them. During an uncomfortable dinner with his father, Ford notices that "Frost settled over the table, covering the dinnerware and the remains of the dessert"; later, his loneliness manifests itself vividly when "he hummed a few notes of the carol idly and thinly, with noise from the refrigerator as his only accompaniment." Grimsley is not consistently subtle, however. At times he tries to pack too much into occurrences, making them feel overdramatic. When Ford learns that Dan is HIV positive, his face is described as "washing white as ice, his knuckles as brittle as the stem of the wineglass." This is not only overwrought, it also seems a decidedly unrealistic reaction from a doctor in the age of protease inhibitors. Grimsley's tendency to go over the top in this fashion sometimes makes Dan and Ford come across as a bad combination of humorless and grandiose. But Grimsley also has a talent for drawing characters with simple gestures and actions: Dan's stepfather warms to Ford by showing off his toolshed; his sister's rocky past reveals itself between puffs of cigarette smoke; and Ford's own sister gives eloquent expression to her solicitude in the way she insists on taking Dan's coat. Eventually, Comfort & Joy's simple plot twists, common dialogue, and occasionally overwrought characters serve as minor elements in the production of something major: an intelligent examination of the intangible ties that bind people together in a lasting relationship. "And they wonder, without words, without sound," Grimsley writes. "Why do men stay together? It is easy to understand why they fuck, but. . . . Why do they live in the same house, share meals together, argue about money and parents? Where are the children, where is the sense of permanence, what is the tie that binds?" The search for that question—and the way the answer emerges between the lines of Comfort & Joy—is what keeps the reader invested in this book to its end.