Nava, Michael 1954-
NAVA, Michael 1954-
PERSONAL: Born September 16, 1954, in Stockton, CA; son of Victoria Acuñ; companion of Don Romesburgh. Ethnicity: "Mexican; Yaqui." Education: Colorado College, B.A., 1976; Stanford University, J.D., 1981 Religion: Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Baseball.
CAREER: Writer and lawyer. City of Los Angeles, CA, deputy city attorney, 1981-84; private practice of law in Los Angeles, 1984-86; California Court of Appeal, Los Angeles, research attorney, 1986-1995; California Supreme Court, San Francisco, CA, staff attorney, c. 1998—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Lambda Literary Award, for Best Small Press Publication, 1988; Lambda Literary Award, for Gay Men's Mystery, 1988, for Goldenboy, 1990, for How Town, 1993, for The Hidden Law, 1997, for Death of Friends, and 2002, for Rag and Bone.
(With Robert Dawidoff) Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America (nonfiction), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994.
(Editor) Finale: Short Stories of Mystery and Suspense, Alyson Publications (Boston, MA), 2002.
"HENRY RIOS" SERIES
The Little Death, Alyson Publications (Boston, MA), 1986, reprinted Alyson Books (Los Angeles, CA), 2001.
Goldenboy, Alyson Publications (Boston, MA), 1988.
How Town: A Novel of Suspense, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1990.
The Hidden Law, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
The Death of Friends, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.
The Burning Plain, Putnam (New York, NY), 1997.
Rag and Bone, Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.
Autobiographical essays have appeared in Hometowns, edited by John Preston, Dutton (New York, NY) 1990; Member of the Family, edited by John Preston, Dutton (New York, NY), 1992; Common Ground: Reading and Writing about America's Cultures, edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994; Friends and Lovers, edited by John Preston, Dutton (New York, NY), 1994; Wrestling with the Angel, edited by Brian Bouldrey, Riverhead (New York, NY), 1995; and Boys Like Us, edited by Patrick Merla, Avon Books (New York, NY), 1996.
SIDELIGHTS: Over a period of fourteen years, Michael Nava—raised in Gardenland, the barrio of Sacramento—has published seven mystery novels in which the protagonist, Henry Rios, is—like the author himself—a California-based, gay, third-generation, Mexican-American attorney. In defending the defenseless, reformed alcoholic defense attorney Rios never forgets the pain and pleasure he experienced as a child growing up in the fictional neighborhood of Paradise Slough in the fictional town of Los Robles. The Rios novels have all received wide critical acclaim, been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award (five having won the Award), and been published internationally. Katherine Forrest wrote in her introduction to an interview with Nava for Lambda Book Report: "The seven-novel panorama of the life and times and trials—trials intensely personal as well as professional—of Henry Rios comprises the most distinguished and iconoclastic gay mystery series to grace the pages of American Literature. . . . Even the New York Times, hardly a bastion of support for our work in years past, has conceded that 'Michael Nava is one of our best.'"
While creating mysteries with professional challenges for the protagonist, Nava portrays personal challenges, as well—pain, loss, growth, and victory—through the character of Rios. In The Hidden Law, the forty-yearold Rios—already having struggled through alcoholism—must deal with the fact that Josh, his HIV-positive lover of five years, is leaving him for another man. "In direct and eloquent prose . . . [Nava writes] an intricate, satisfying novel," commented a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. In Death of Friends, an earthquake portends the personal and professional turmoil Rios finds himself in. Several friends die of AIDS, and he takes care of his former lover as he, too, dies of the disease. Professionally, he defends a "studly" young man accused of murdering his lover, a male married judge. "Nava has said he wants his writing to reflect the rich California environment he lives in: Multi-ethnic, multi-sexual, and multi-racial," wrote Lev Rapahel for Lambda Book Report. "He succeeded: Rios is Mexican-American, his ex-lover Josh is Jewish, Josh's doctor is Indian, one of the police officers investigating the murder is African-American, and the two judges are an Asian-American woman and a Latina." Rapahel called this a "smoothly told story that raises very serious questions abut how society treats its gay citizens and how we treat each other—and ourselves." Ray Olson commented in Booklist that, in Rios, Nava has created "the ideal persona through whom to grasp the human meat of the issues (the closet, pornography, the power of social position) that the judge's murder raises. Like the other Rios mysteries, this is first and foremost a deeply moving novel."
Jim Marks explained in The Lambda Book Report that the title of The Burning Plain is taken from Dante's Inferno and the seventh circle of Hell where homosexuals must endure eternal torment. In Nava's novel, Hollywood is Dante's Hell. "From the opening lines painting the city in the bleakest of Dashiell Hammett prose, Nava lays bare a world in which morality has become almost literally pointless," explained Marks. "There is a terrible beauty in much of the writing by gay men about AIDS, and this opening scene will join their number." Rios, the protagonist, purchases a copy of Dante's classic, and we find him reading it through much of the novel, "almost as if he needs any guidebook that will help him navigate this horrible, strange terrain," commented Marks. After proving himself innocent of murdering a homosexual prostitute with whom he spent the evening before the brutal murder, Rios gets involved in the investigation of more brutal murders of gay men, and must deal with a gay-bashing policeman, an unsympathetic district attorney, and a conspiracy between Hollywood's rich and powerful. Most painful, however, is the long, drawn-out court battle with the grieving parents of his dead lover, Josh, over Josh's wish to be cremated. Josh's Jewish parents, recalling the Holocaust, are devastated when Rios wins the case, and Rios is devastated by their grief. "My sense is that Nava wrote this novel out of necessity," observed Marks. "Like Henry Rios in the opening court case, he knew that there could be no triumph in his portrait, and he pressed on knowing that he will surely be criticized for painting such a bleak picture of gay life. . . . But as Henry walks out of the cemetery where Josh's ashes are housed, I hope that readers are given at least a glimmer of redemption in the final image of a new rose placed by Josh's funeral urn."
In the seventh book in the "Henry Rios" series, Rag and Bone, Rios suffers a major heart attack and calls his estranged sister's name just before his heart stops beating. Upon being revived, he awakes to find her there and they ultimately become reunited. "The smooth integrated plot strands conspire to test and push Rios into reassessing everything, from the new love and the commitment it both promises and demands, to the news that his estranged sister Elena, had had a daughter, now grown and with a son of her own," explained a critic for Publishers Weekly. Vicky—the daughter Elena gave up for adoption and has never met, along with her ten-year-old son, Angel—lands at Elena's door. Vicky is running from an apparently abusive and addicted husband whom she ultimately kills. The case looks like self-defense but becomes much more complicated and dangerous. Henry heads Vicky's defense and cares for her troubled son, who reminds him of himself as a child. "A super plot, memorable characters, and touching prose makes this essential for fans," commented Rex Klett for Library Journal.
Michael Nava once told CA: "All any writer has to write about is his or her experience of the world. As a gay man—of Mexican descent, no less—my challenge as a writer is to convey the value of my experience without preaching or apologizing. Writing mysteries, I work with the familiar and am able to insert the unfamiliar." In Gay & Lesbian Literature, Patti Capel Swartz quoted Nava as saying: "I began writing mysteries because I identified, as a gay person, with a species of literature in which the protagonist is an outsider who embodies the virtues that society purports to value—like loyalty, decency, and compassion—but seldom demonstrates. For me, coming out as gay required an enormous act of self-compassion after which I could no longer be so intolerant of other kinds of difference or so rigid in my moral certainties. I think that if I were not homosexual, I would be an extremely intolerant person, so perhaps my being gay was a little joke God played on me to teach me tenderness."
As it turns out, Rag and Bone is to be Nava's last "Henry Rios" novel. In the first sentence of the Acknowledgments page, he writes: "This book brings to an end this series of mysteries and my career as a mystery writer." Explaining this decision in a review for Publishers Weekly, Charles Hix quoted Nava as saying: "I'm not interested in writing about being homosexual any more. . . . I'm older. I'm now 46. There are other more meaningful things to think about. I've returned to the Catholic Church. I'm a practicing Catholic again." Hix commented: "Nava believes gay fiction is losing resonance with its audience. 'Gay and lesbian young people, like their Generation X straight counterparts, don't read much. . . . Young people can see themselves on TV and in movies . . . there is not a need for the safe houses that gay bookstores used to represent. The missionary age is over. The bookstores did their job. Time moves on.'"
In his interview with Forrest, Nava remarked: "I have published eight books in fifteen years while also practicing law for all but three of those years. I have no intention of keeping up that pace anymore. When I finally do get around to writing another book, it will be in a more relaxed schedule and, frankly, I don't particularly care whether I'm published again. I've never enjoyed the public part of being a writer—book signings, interviews, dealing with the machinery of the publishing industry, that sort of thing—and I plan to drop out of sight now that this series is over. The only thing that matters to me is the writing. Everything else is just noise."
"What I've enjoyed most in Nava's mystery series is their somber, brooding quality; they have some affinities with the best of Georges Simenon's moody 'Maigret' novels," commented Rapahel. And Forrest noted: "If Rag and Bone is to be our farewell to Henry Rios, to the end of an era, we have much to be thankful for: these seven superb novels and an enduring literary legacy from Michael Nava no matter where his future writing endeavors may bring him."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Pendergast, Tom and Sara Pendergast, editors, Gay and Lesbian Literature, Volume 2, St. James Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Booklist, August 1996, Ray Olson, review of The Death of Friends, p. 1887; January 1, 1998, Emily Melton, review of The Burning Plain, p. 784; February 1, 2001, Ray Olson, review of Rag and Bone, p. 1042.
Entertainment Weekly, September 6, 1996, Suzanne Ruta, review of The Death of Friends, p. 7.
Gay & Lesbian Review, May 2001, Greg Herren, review of Rag and Bone, p. 42.
Lambda Book Report, September-October 1996, Lev Rapahel, review of The Death of Friends, p. 9; March 1998, Jim Marks, review of The Burning Plain, p. 14; March 2001, Katherine V. Forrest, "Adios Rios," interview with Michael Nava, p. 8.
Library Journal, February 1, 2001, Rex E. Klett, review of Rag and Bone, p. 127.
People Weekly, September 30, 1996, Pam Lambert, review of The Death of Friends, p. 33; February 2, 1998, J. A. Reed, review of The Burning Plain, p. 31.
Publishers Weekly, September 7, 1992, review of The Hidden Law, p. 82; July 8, 1996, review of The Death of Friends, p. 77; January 22, 2001, review of Rag and Bone, p. 306; April 23, 2001, Charles Hix, "Final Chapter," review of Rag and Bone, p. 31.