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There are mysteries for mystery-readers, and then there are mysteries that everyone should read. Lies With Man is one of those.
Since 1986's A Little Death, Michael Nava's award-winning series of crime novels follows gay, Latino Los Angeles defense attorney Henry Rios around then-contemporary Los Angeles. Nava aptly registers in a noir-ish style the decimation by the HIV-AIDS epidemic of Rios's community and love-built family. Nava also celebrates Rios and his friends' resistance to the illiberalism that facilitates the epidemic.
The Rios series has won Nava six Lambda Literary Awards and several other prestigious literary prizes. His new novel Lies with Man is a prequel to Rios's adventures, an American epic, and an unsettling analogue for our current era of viral pandemics of RNA, disinformation, and hatred.
Like Rios's previous adventures, Lies with Man is also an unstoppable page turner with riveting, genuinely unpredictable cliffhangers. This aesthetic power is due as much to Nava's topical concerns as his deft plotting and hard-boiled, acerbically witty dialogue.
Lies With Man begins with the Bible. The title comes from the Old Testament and the first character introduced is a Bible man, or so he thinks. It's 1986, and troubled evangelical megachurch leader Daniel Herron is happy to placate his church's board by demonizing HIV+ people--until the epidemic hits him close to home. There's a lot of lying in Herron's life, most of it definitely not in the Biblical sense. While Herron might be a familiar cultural type, he's handled with empathy and complexity, as are all Nava's culturally and ideologically ecumenical cast of characters.
The novel's perspective initially shifts between Daniel's narrative and that of Henry Rios, who at the meeting of a radical queer group galvanized to resist their community's decimation, meets a character whom Rios fans will recognize from some of the previous novels: Josh Mandel. Rios, Mandel, and their friends are profoundly concerned about the imminent popular vote on a cruel and illogical piece of draft legislation, "Prop. 54," which proposes to mandate the identification and quarantining of all HIV+ people. A composite of the historical Prop. 64 and other equally nefarious propositions, Prop. 54 codifies the social stigmatization of the gay community and reminds us that concern for public health has been hijacked as a weapon of reactionary social control--and can be again.
While Daniel Herron, pressured to publicly endorse Prof. 54, must choose between his public face and his proverbial soul, one of Josh's friends--young, lost, HIV+ meth addict Theo Latour, turns up the prime suspect in a crime that protests that immodest proposal. Rios finds himself defending Latour but also examining what the moral response to mass-murderous policy might be--a question that will follow him throughout Nava's series.
As always, Rios is noticeably hard-boiled: not because of his profession or his Californian context, but because his constant grappling with confused, struggling people has shown him quite a lot of understandable irrationally and senseless destruction. Involved in the illegal import and distribution of Mexican over-the-counter medicines that actually do something to help AIDS patients, Rios unflinchingly listens as his associates quip, in all seriousness, that they're "saving him for when the feds bust us and throw us into jail."
Another source of aggravation comes from Josh's parents, whose homophobia has estranged them from him at just the time when he needs a family--and threatens to spill over to impact Rios, too. And then there's Theo's eye-rolling boyfriend Freddy, who is, comparatively, the put-together one on whom Theo depends to stay sober, calmed-down, and grounded. Rios sees that Freddy recognizes his exasperation with the activist group's internal conflicts, but, as every Noir ratiocinator learns, in the moral labyrinth of the city, no two people really see the big picture in the exact same way, and not all the lost want to be found.
It's a good time for Lies With Man to appear. The novel derives its immediacy not only from Nava's timely investigation of politically facilitated pandemic, the rise of the American far right, and the emergence of the American LGBT community as a self-determined group and a political force, but because of the synchronous publication of Sarah Schulman's Let the Record Show (Macmillan, 2020), an eyewitness-informed history of ACT-UP--the HIV-justice advocacy group that features prominently in Rios and Josh's classic adventures. It's time for a new generation of readers to learn this difficult, important history. Nava's series, beginning with Lies with Man, is a great place to start.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, focusing on
Victorian literature. She has written for
RTE since 2004 and served as co-editor
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, February 2021
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