Nava's dark mystery questions with clever subtlety our perception of the body, sickness, and sexuality. The landscape of mist-shrouded 1980s San Francisco is a seduction in and of itself, especially for Nava's hero, Billy Ryan, who is exiled to the city after being run out of his home of Eden Plains, Indiana. The novel in June 1971 with two sweaty, shirtless teenage boys, the fading images of a naked Marco in Billy's head, the confusion desire and shame--this is how Billy Ryan knew he was queer after confronting his father's terrible eyes: "I don't know what you are, but you're not my son."
In Billy's world, the books told him homosexuals "were mentally ill creatures" that haunted public toilets where they tried to force themselves on unsuspecting men, that they were deceitful and cowardly while oversexed and incapable of love: "I've met other men like you," a priest tells him. "There's no cure." Nava builds Billy's tortured synchronicity, this exile facing burdens of guilt and remorse amid the AIDS crisis and the promises of a new love.
In 1984, in the midst of the plague, criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios is also forced into a reckoning of sorts. Sharing the sidewalks with men who look like the "unburied dead," Henry has survived almost drinking himself to death. Now in a "bare-knuckled sobriety," Henry lives in a time when something is stalking the city's gay men, a virus "that bludgeons them with grotesque diseases," leaving them blind, demented and emaciated before it kills them. Little is known about it, except that the disease seems to pass from body to body in the "naked intimacy of sex."
Against this backdrop, Henry gets a job investigating insurance claims on the recommendation of his friend and sponsor, Larry Ross. Someone has been paying out fraudulent claims. Rio is tasked with investigating Bill's circumspect death and his lover, Nick Trejo. Suggesting a professional rather than a personal relationship, no family is mentioned among Bill's survivors, confirming my suspicion that he was estranged from them. In an effort to follow up on Billy's estate, the investigation takes Henry to a converted Edwardian on Market Street, into Nick's life and with the ghost of Bill's best friend, Waldo.
Like a literary chess player, Nava assiduously sets forth a series of spontaneous set-pieces between Henry's investigation, the anxiety clouding his mind and the unsettling feeling he's fundamentally unfixable; and Billy, the reluctant, frightened city boy, who arrives outside the Greyhound bus terminal in the frigid foggy city. At midnight on Polk Street, cold, tired and electric with arousal, Billy pushes through the doors of The Hide N Seek bar. There he meets Waldo, who lets him stay in his three-story brick tenement with its dust-streaked windows. Bill hopes his terror will diminish with the passing of time, his ever-present fear like "the summer fog that rolls into the city, sometimes in wisps, sometimes cold, obscuring clouds."
Nava weaves his tale around how, during the 1980s, gay men were living on edge of things, "clinging to life's outer rim." Nava's San Francisco setting is colorful, a fitting backdrop to Billy, Nick, Waldo and Henry's connections, precariously linked by illness and betrayal. Something bothers Henry about Bill's death. It's not so much the circumstances of the case as the victim, a thirty-something gay man tossed out by his family but who led a successful and productive life only to die a pointless, untimely death.
Bill is destined to protect Nick, though the allure of anonymous sex is seductive and pervasive. Bill pits his desire for coked-up sex at the dimly lit Club Baths with his obsessive love for Nick. The idea that Nick Trejo is a gold-digger doesn't jive with Henry's own impressions of him, a view reinforced by their kindly landlady, Mrs. Donohoe. By turns heartbreaking and honest, Nava's journey gives birth to an unusual poignancy where the demand for the men to be included is a fierce, powerful force that frames the novel.
Both Bill and Ryan have been cast out of their tribes. Both share "a thousand nights of lonely fantasies" and a notion of love that is formed by Bill's observations of the dating rituals in his memories of Eden Plains. The bittersweet moments of love found and love lost reverberate through time, as if we are experiencing Bill and Ryan's love ourselves.