Title: Carved in Bone: A Henry Rios Novel (Henry Rios Mystery #2)
Author: Michael Nava
Publisher: Persigo Press
Release Date: October 1, 2019
Page Count: 374
Reviewed by: ParisDude
Heat Level: 1 flame out of 5
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
November, 1984. Criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios, fresh out of rehab and picking up the pieces of his life, reluctantly accepts work as an insurance claims investigator and is immediately assigned to investigate the apparently accidental death of Bill Ryan. Ryan, part of the great gay migration into San Francisco in the 1970s, has died in his flat of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas line, his young lover barely surviving.
Rios’s investigation into Ryan’s death—which Rios becomes convinced was no accident—tracks Ryan’s life from his arrival in San Francisco as a terrified 18-year-old to his transformation into a successful businessman. What begins for Rios as the search for the truth about Bill Ryan’s death becomes the search for the meaning of Ryan’s life as the tsunami of AIDS bears down on the gay community.
My German, English and French teachers back at school would always insist on the distinction between “serious” Literature (quotation marks by me, capital L by them) and the whole rest of written fiction, which in their eyes was nothing more than pulp fiction—the best-case-scenario being that you might indulge in them as some sort of guilty pleasure with the sole aim of being entertained. This distinction was easy to follow for us young ones: their Literature equalled the dull, dry, dusty stuff; and pulp fiction, which some of us did indulge in, the others not bothering to read anything outside the compulsory books, made for light fun reads. Of course, being a bookworm, I later revised my bad opinion of what my teachers deemed to be “serious” Literature, because there are loads of books pertaining to that category (books we didn’t study, go figure why) that have become like best friends to me ever since.
This being said, most if not all of the books discussed on this site would doubtlessly have been dubbed pulp fiction by those teachers, including Michael Nava’s latest novel “Carved in Bone”, presented as a mystery on amazon. I don’t necessarily subscribe to my teachers’ distinction anyway, but even if I did, I’d fight them tooth and nail where this book is concerned. This, dear readers, is most certainly a book I’d unblinkingly call “serious” Literature, and “serious” Literature of the best kind. Apparently, it’s the ninth novel with criminal defence lawyer Henry Rios as the main character. I have to admit, it’s the first time I open a book written by Mr. Nava, and for certain, it won’t be the last (the nine previous instalments joining my TBR as we speak). Yet I’m rather glad I haven’t read any of the previous adventures of Henry Rios before; that allowed me to approach both book and main character completely unbiased and un-influenced.
In fact, there are two main characters, each one getting his own plotline, both distinct at first, then rapidly intertwining and intertwined. There’s the third-person account of Bill Ryan, which from chapter to chapter is alternated with the first-person story of Henry Rios.
Illinois, June 1971: at eighteen, Bill Ryan gets caught by his father while having sex with his best mate, gets beaten up, then thrown out. With barely more than the clothes he’s been lent in hospital, and a couple of dollars in his pocket, Bill takes the bus to San Francisco, where a young and flamboyant man, Waldo, takes him under his wings. We follow Bill’s struggle with his sexuality, his first time, his on-and-off relationships, his professional success, his looking and longing for a long-time companion, until at thirty-something he meets eighteen-year old, innocent Nick. His first impression is that “[n]o shadows seemed to cling to him, no history of hurts deformed him and, in his presence, Bill felt as if he could shed his own shadows and hurts”. They become a couple rather quickly, and Bill tries to protect Nick from the perceived cruelty of the world of grown-ups, because ‘[w]hat mostly comprised [this] world was uncertainty, fear, regret and loss”.
Henry Rios’s story starts in 1984. He’s just out of rehab and trying to re-structure his life. That process includes AA-meetings, regular conversations with his L.A.-based sponsor, and lots of self-questioning. His career as a lawyer being somewhat jeopardized by his drinking habits, he accepts to work part-time for a big insurance company. The first claim he’s asked to investigate concerns… Bill Ryan. Bill has just died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his flat, his boyfriend Nick barely surviving, and his life insurance, of which Nick is the beneficiary, is now due to be paid. Henry digs into the stories of the two young men, all the while trying to stay sober and trying to understand and mend his own life.
Michael Nava is a highly proficient story-teller with a sure quill and a skilful mastery of writing. Only a few paragraphs were necessary to draw me in, and I admit that, by the end of chapter 1, I was in tears, partly because of the plot, but partly because Nava’s words made old hurts and emotions bubble up inside me that I’d almost believed vanished or at least forgotten. I also admit that I remained extremely emotional throughout the read because, where the book didn’t tell my story (which it did in really large parts), it told the painful story of so many of my brethren and sisters of the LGBTQ community. We get an insightful, emphatic reading of the 70s and 80s here, and the fact that events of that time are pinned onto fictional personae doesn’t take anything away from the tale’s power, its general messages or its brilliant analyses, some of which can still be used to comprehend today’s world. For instance, what does Bill see when he enters a gay bar and looks at its patrons? Let me quote: “They posed like statues at and around the bar, but their eyes darted wildly back and forth across the room like goldfish swimming circles in a fishbowl.” Does this ring a bell for someone going to a gay bar or club nowadays? It sure does. The analysis of the psychological process of internalized homophobia and homo-hatred is another excellent example of Nava’s words striking an effective cord in me. The same is true for Bill’s nigh desperate attempts to find his Significative Other (which for him was nothing less than a question of live or die), or his incapacity to have anything but a toxic relationship, even with someone like Nick, whom he loved more than anything in the world. The description of the outbreak of the AIDS-epidemic and its political exploitation by the Reagan administration is another example of how poignant Nava’s writing (and the story in itself) is.
So many important questions are tackled in this novel that it’s impossible to list them all. I’m not sure this could be a book appealing to the female visitors of this site—here, romance comes with real-life troubles, there’s no HEA in sight, and this is certainly no “entertaining” or “fun” read. Some passages are deep almost to the point of being bleak, some so poignant you should really keep your hankies ready. What I know is that this is an important book and that it should almost be a compulsory read for gay guys. Please, don’t get me wrong: I don’t make this distinction to be sexist, but based on the reviews and comments I’m regularly browsing on this site. I also think we can all accept there aren’t the same expectations and needs when it comes to books whether the reader is female or male, striaght or gay. I know my main emotion after reading the oh-so-realistic chapter 1 was anger and outrage, and the thought: “Never! Again!” No, we must not allow circumstances, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour to ever go back to what they were in the early 70s. We must strive to make LGBTQ people not only accepted, but so integrated into society nobody bothers to identify them anymore. We must help LGBTQ youngsters to accept and love themselves, never forgetting how hard it still is for many of them (even today, no matter how far we’ve come already) to get there. No, “[b]eing a fag ain’t for sissies”, as Waldo puts it, it sure isn’t even today. This book puts into carefully crafted, chiselled words so many of my own thoughts, struggles, emotions. It’s a vibrant plaidoyer for acceptance, for helping and reaching out, for courage, hope, and love.