Thursday, January 12, 2017
"Lay Your Sleeping Head" by Michael Nava
The writer Michael Nava was interviewed and gave a reading from his newly published novel, Lay Your Sleeping Head, last Saturday at the Hormel Center in the Main Branch of the SF Public Library. The turnout comfortably filled the room, amusing questions from writer Kevin Killian were thoughtfully answered, and books were sold.
In a fascinating, autobiographical afterword to the novel, Nava explains the book's genesis. His first mystery novel, The Little Death, was published in 1986 by a young, gay Bostonian, Sasha Alyson, who Nava remembers as being very odd, but also possessing unusual "vision, intelligence and determination." The novel was meant to be a one-off, but it was reviewed favorably in The New York Times and was a modest success, so he was contracted to write more featuring the same leading character, Henry Rios, a gay, Mexican-American lawyer who came from the wrong side of the tracks in California's San Joaquin Valley and managed to educate himself into a complicated relationship with the ruling class of coastal California.
The Henry Rios series continued for a total of seven volumes, ending with Rag and Bone in 2001, and then stopped altogether, partly because the author had become tired of living constantly with the same character. This was hugely disappointing for fans of the series, because the books are so good and the characters so rich. Additionally, there are very few writers that have described 20th Century California as well as Nava, or as accurately. Readers were being given insiders' looks at the gay world in all its intricacies and the Mexican-American world in its own complexities, plus convincing appearances from every race, political group and economic class. On top of it all, his California is multiple: San Francisco and its environs, the San Joaquin Valley, and Los Angeles are all shaded distinctly.
Without a trust fund background, Nava had to find a paying profession rather than poet/writer/grad student, so he became a lawyer, graduating from Stanford Law School, and had a distinguished career that ended while writing opinions at the California Supreme Court in San Francisco and working on death penalty case reviews. Long an advocate for racial diversity on the bench, he also ran for Superior Court Judge earlier this decade and almost won. Because Nava broke the unofficial, back bench rule which decrees that you must not run against a sitting judge, the election got as ugly as anything I have ever witnessed in local San Francisco politics, which is quite a statement if you are familiar with the everyday corruption of San Francisco politics. The silver lining to the electoral disaster was it spurred Nava to finally finish a novel he had been working on for 14 years about the Mexican Revolution, The City of Palaces. It is a modern classic, I believe, and worth the time it took to germinate.
Meanwhile, the Henry Rios series were being regarded as modern classics of their own in the California mystery genre, and are being studied in Latin American and Gay Studies programs at colleges throughout the country. Unfortunately, they were out of print except for e-book versions, so last year Nava managed to regain the print rights to the seven novels from a conglomerate and struck up a deal with another young indie publisher, Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano. Nava read The Little Death for the first time in years, hoping to fix a few typos, and found himself appalled at how thin the book was, and how much better a writer he had become over the course of a lifetime. So he rewrote 95% of the novel, keeping the same characters and plot, but enriching it all with an understanding he didn't possess when it was first written. Going back and rewriting earlier work is more common among composers than writers, and it often doesn't work out well, but having read both The Little Death and Lay Your Sleeping Head more than once, this is one case where the improvement is enormous without sacrificing any of the youthful energy that animates the characters.
Nava pointed out to Kevin Killian above that the series has turned out to be an unofficial history of the AIDS Plague era, with Lay Your Sleeping Head taking place in 1982 at the advent and the final Rag and Bone in 2000 when the period where AIDS was an automatic early death sentence was about to come to an end. "Writing these books was like being in the midst of a battle, where friends were being killed all around you, and you just try to survive and record what is going on without really being able to think."
Nava retired from his legal career last summer and he seemed in a bit of a what-to-do-next funk when we had lunch one day. The prospect of writing anymore wasn't appealing. So the real headline news of the afternoon is that Nava has just finished the first draft of a new Henry Rios novel, set in San Francisco in 1984, becoming in effect the second book in the series, bridging the gap between the Northern California first volume and the move to Los Angeles for the rest of the series. "It's the first Henry Rios book set in San Francisco, right after he gets out of rehab and the advent of AIDS is raging in the streets. I started writing it two days after Trump was elected, and have never written anything that fast." This is the first election silver lining story I have heard.