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: Bob-O-Link
Heat Level: 3 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.
How I wish THAT I could begin this review in so many different ways. Of course, as you will
shortly see, each of them would present my inevitable conclusion: Carved in Bone is a
fantastic read, for so many different reasons. This reviewer heartily (rabidly?)
Carved in Bone is a marvelously layered story. In part, it is about Bill Ryan and his
unplanned, teenage coming out, and subsequent exile from his family. Bill is from the
rural heartland where “to be queer was far beyond the pale . . . (and) he was sure it would
be better to be dead than be that thing.” How many of our parents, just as Bill’s, cast off
their young? Must gays choose between their family and their culture? Thus this novel clutches
at the reader from that start.
Bill’s subsequent growth in San Francisco’s gay environment of the 70’s and 80’s is but one
foundation of the novel. He is a troubled man, seeking self-acceptance and love, but
struggling with a stultifying, negative image of himself and the life in which he is
captured. Nonetheless, we follow as he develops romantic (nay, perhaps merely physical)
relationships, much friendships, a career – all that which many would call a “good” life,
was he only able to see himself as better than he believes the world sees him. His friends
are fully drawn by Mr Nava and we get to care about each of them. Bill’s “episodes,”
whether upward or downward, are totally understandable to us. Finally, there is a touching
but difficult relationship with young Nick, with whom Bill tries to create a second chance
for himself, a do-over at love – though damaged by the world, the more Bill loved, the less
worthy he felt of live.
Another approach a review might take could flow from my being a mature gay man and having
read many novels about the “AIDS crises,” starting with those written contemporaneously
to the early days of the plague, on to more recently published iterations of the panic and
pain. Today, it may be hard for younger readers to fully accept that: panic and pain; fear
for oneself and fear of the discovery by friends or family through illness; tenuously
building community, only to be ostracized. Michael Nava has wonderfully structured
(more about that word, shortly) an intense representation of the mid 80’s and how, early on,
the gay community was effected. Henry Rios, known to many of us from Michael Nava’s
earlier, Lambda Award winning, novels, here is reintroduced with just enough of detail of
his back story, so we feel easily familiar with his character and skills – as attorney and
investigator. Henry is an ideal gay citizen of that place and era.
As to the “structuring” of Carved in Bone, it seems we are first to be involved in Bill
Ryan’s coming out and coming west. Our focus is his life and loves. Suddenly, Bill is
deceased and here is Henry Rios, a recovering alcoholic and attorney with a talent for
parsing and solving mysteries, immersed in recapitulating the facts of Bill Ryan’s life and
death. Oh so subtly, author Nava overlaps Bill and Henry’s stories. A careful reader will
spot some common places and characters. No! This isn’t about planting secret clues, but
rather, reinforcing the image of the almost claustrophobic San Francisco gay community.
The novel’s voice artfully shifts between the layers of Bill’s life and Henry’s investigation,
dancing us through the facts in a well-choreographed reveal of all we need to know.
Yet another thread to the woven layers is about coming out. By the early 80’s, the more
sophisticated coasts of America had begun to recognize (though not necessarily accept!)
the open existence of its gay population. Suddenly, Aids seemed to taint us as proper
suffering for sin’s wages. Talking of Bill’s prejudiced father, Bill’s friend tells him: “Bill,
you’re one of them now.” “ ‘One of what?’ He asked, confused.” “A nigger, hon. We’re
all the same. Queers, niggers, spics, chinks. All in the same boat cuz the same people hate
us all.” Welcome to the end of the 20th century in the US of A.
An interesting parallel thread concerns alcoholism. Bill, among other problems, drinks
excessively (also, as a punishment for his “gay” guilt, often favors being abused). Henry
is a recovering alcoholic, going to AA. Carved in the Bone provides us with an
excellent preliminary educational to the workings of AA and the beasts that inhabit the
affected. Alcoholism, so sadly, is a disease of loneliness, common to the community.
Thank you, Michael Nava. Beside being the consummate story teller, you never shy from
turning the beautiful or clever phrase:
* “Veteran’s Day, 1984. Ronald Reagan, just reelected president, said it was morning in
America, but in San Francisco, where I shared the sidewalks with men who looked like the
unburied dead, the mourning was altogether different.”
* “Wild roses splattered red blossoms on the hillside. The air was fragrant with the scent
of leaves and earth and ocean.”
* “A man and a woman was a love story. A man joined to a man was a smutty joke.”
* “The bridge was not gold but orange, its graceful span less a structure than a gesture.”
A few summary comments:
1. Please also read the Author’s Note at the novel’s end, which is especially interesting.
2. What did “coming out” then mean to a young, gay man? Waldo, a friend who knew
what is was like to be thrown away, advises the newly out Bill with regard feelings about
the family that threw him away: “Your relatives . . . They were just strangers on the train.
That part of your trip is done and you don’t ever have to see them again. You’re free now,
3. There is a special lesson when, toward the end of the novel, someone urges Bill
“ ‘. . . you have to stop hating yourself for being gay.’ ‘I don’t hate myself for being that.’
‘Oh honey, of course you do. How could we not? We’ve been taught to hate ourselves by
our gay-hating culture.’ ”
If anything, Carved in Bone poses problems for each of us to contemplate. Can we be
gay and still be, simply, people in love? Or do we retain the mis-training that tells us that to
love another of the same sex is wrong and deserves to be punished? I doubt we can create
our current new world without revisiting the old, as Michael Nava has brilliantly shown it.