A guest review by Victor J. Banis
Summary review: Assigned to provide social services to an AIDS infected patient, Dan goes to visit his new client, thinking of himself as the caregiver –but in the author’s clever twist on words, it turns out to be Adam, dying of AIDS, who becomes Dan’s caregiver.
It’s 1991, and Dan Calzolaio has just moved to Florida with his lover, Mark, having fled Chicago and Mark’s addictions to begin a new life on the Gulf Coast. Volunteering for the Tampa AIDS Alliance is just one part of that new beginning, and that’s how Dan meets his new buddy, Adam.
Adam Schmidt is not at all what Dan expected. The guy is an original—witty, wry, and sarcastic with a fondness for a smart black dress, Barbra Streisand, and a good mai tai. Adam doesn’t let his imminent death get him down, even through a downward spiral that sees him thrown in jail.
Each step of Adam’s journey teaches Dan new lessons about strength and resilience, but…(and the rest is spoiler…)
I will confess right up front that I have an aversion to AIDS novels. No, you don’t need to know why, I’m just saying. The truth is, if this novel was from anyone else, I would probably have stopped reading after a few chapters, and I would certainly not be writing a review of it now—but, this is a Rick R. Reed story, and as strong as my aversion to AIDS novels might be, my respect and admiration for Rick as a writer is stronger still, and in the end, that won out.
This oughtn’t to be about me, however, but about the book. It is a strong book. It is dark, the darkest I’ve ever read from this author. Reed has written about AIDS before, but somewhat more offhandedly – stories about people who happen to have AIDS, but mostly – at least not in the ones I’ve read – not actually about AIDS itself.
Caregiver is about AIDS, no use beating about the bush, and about people who have it. Well, about one particular person, anyway, although all of the characters in this book are infected, in one sense or another, by the virus – by the idea of the virus, by the fear of getting it, or the travails of coping with it. Adam happens to be the only one with lesions on his skin. For the others, the spots are less visible but no less toxic.
If this were a different kind of novel, I’d have been thinking from the beginning that AIDS-infected Adam was going to be the author’s Lady Bountiful. Certainly, the disease notwithstanding, he’s a free spirit, and decidedly bigger than life. When the narrator, Dan (I am reluctant to refer to him as the protagonist because, frankly, and you might as well know this, this is not a conventionally structured story) first comes to meet him –an assignment from Tampa AIDS Alliance Buddy program- he is surprised by the person who greets him at the door: Adam wore the classic little black dress, a string of pearls, black leather kitten heels and sheer black nylons. His nails were painted a shocking red, a shade the gayest side of Dan was absolutely positive would have been called “Jungle Red.” Adam’s wispy blond hair had obviously been blown dry and sprayed into place. His angular features had been enhanced with a good concealer, a little blush, mascara, pale green eye shadow, and slash of red across his thin lips that perfectly matched his nails.
Despite his terminal illness, Adam displays a winning insouciance that both astonishes and delights Dan (and the reader as well), and in one of the book’s more charming developments, they quickly graduate from caregiver and client to friends.
Both Adam and Dan have recently moved to Florida from Chicago with their partners (all of them with ulterior motives, as it turns out), and both relationships are troubled. Adam and his partner, Sullivan, clearly love one another, but Adam’s condition frightens Sullivan and their sex life has become nearly non-existent. It is apparent at their first meeting that Dan and Sullivan find one another attractive.
The moment would freeze in Dan’s memory for a long time. The two men’s eyes met; Dan’s brown and Sullivan’s a pale gray that had an almost pearlescent quality and nearly matched the sky outside. The longest lashes Dan had never seen on a man framed those same eyes. Sullivan had smooth, creamy skin that accentuated the black stubble on the angular planes of his jaws and the rosy color above the stubble. He stood somewhere around six-foot-three or so, Dan guessed. His hair was black, curly, and long in the back. Lanky in a Chicago Bulls T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a pair of black athletic shorts, his presence was imposing. His big feet were encased in a pair of black Converse high-tops.
Adam shattered the moment with a vicious poke to Dan’s ribs, making Dan jump. “He’s mine, sugar.”
Dan’s relationship, too, is an unhappy one. His partner, Mark, is on a downward spiral of drink, drugs and partying—and, just maybe, Dan worries, HIV infection. At first, Dan had done the cocaine with him. It was fun on the weekends, an escape. They would mix up a batch of cocktails, margaritas or screwdrivers usually, and Mark would procure a tiny bag of white powder for the two of them. They would drink, listen to music, and snort lines. At eleven or so, wired and feeling blissful, they would head out to Halsted Street and hit the clubs to dance, never tiring, even when it started heading toward 5 am and the last calls would go out. They would walk or cab home, watching as the light filtered from black to gray to pinkish-violet as the sun rose over Lake Michigan and would sleep the following Saturday or Sunday away.
It seemed relatively harmless.
Until it wasn’t.
Those are the elements from which the author constructs his story, and I can’t go much further into the plot convolutions – and it is convoluted – without spoiling things. I’ve said already that the story is dark and it gets steadily darker before the characters and the reader get to see any light.
Is this a perfect novel? No, far from it. The author departs from his usual style of letting the characters lead the plot, and puts the plot in charge instead—a legitimate writing form, to be sure. My personal preference is for the character driven story, but that is an artistic choice the author gets to make. Like all choices (whether in art or life), however, there is a price involved, and in this instance it’s sometimes the characters who pay.
The author has a tendency, too, to paste emotions on from the outside rather than letting them shine through from within. The odd thing is, Reed doesn’t really need to work like this at bringing emotion into this novel— it’s all there in his finely crafted story. I am reminded of an attractive young man I once watched sing. He had a really nice voice, a fine delivery, and, alas, he never stopped bumping and grinding the whole time. I kept getting distracted from the fine singing by his gyrating hips. All I could ponder was why he just didn’t trust the music and his talent a bit more. So, yes, there’s some unnecessary bumping and grinding here.
Moreover, the structure, as I’ve already said, is non-conventional, and the book almost separates itself into not just two different stories but two different spirits. In a sense, it’s comforting, because the bleakness gives way to something lighter, and the clouds part to reveal a very pretty sunset. I found it disconcerting, too, and had some trouble shifting gears, but that’s maybe just me.
No matter. These are quibbles. Overall, it works; even a cursory read of the excerpts I’ve included will assure the reader that Reed has a fine command of words that sometimes approaches the magical, and I think few readers will come away from reading this emotionally untouched. Even struggling with my aversion, I could not stop reading until I had finished, and I don’t know how you can pay a writer any better compliment than that.
Rick R. Reed is a very versatile author. He writes humor, both sly and broad; horror; mystery; romance and it wouldn’t surprise me if he were a master of limericks. The artist, the true artist in any field will inevitably be the one who takes the chances, who pushes himself beyond his comfort zone, who eschews what he’s always done before to try another path. He is the dancer who is always trying to leap a bit higher, the singer finding a new note, the painter blending a whiter shade of pale. I have in the past likened this to courage, but I think now I was mistaken, it is not that either, because that suggests making a conscious choice, while the artist has no choice but to take the risks, because the thing within him that makes him an artist is always goading him, always whispering to him, in the night, in his ear, “No, that’s not quite it either. Try again…” And try he does, in yet another way, and no one who hasn’t done it can imagine how scary that can be.
It’s impossible to say whether the writer who takes those chances will ultimately develop into an artist, but I can say absolutely, no one has ever developed into a true artist without taking the risks.
Is Rick R. Reed a great artist? Hmmm, not yet. He’s a very fine craftsman, and he’s on the track to being something more, which is to say, he takes the risks. And meantime, anyone who likes a good book could do far worse than pick up this one –or any one—of his.
I began by explaining my aversion to AIDS novels—but I’m not so great a fool that I didn’t know from the first page or so that this is a terrific work, insightful and bold, by a very talented writer who is likely to get better.
I can recommend Caregiver heartily, but have a hankie close at hand. Or, maybe instead of a hankie, a good stiff drink.
Or possibly a stiff something else. Reed does indeed know how to dial the temperature up.
Caregiver linked here is the Dreamspinner free book today on the site.