Friday, July 26, 2013

The Death of Friends by Michael Nava

Sometimes you meet someone, or just happen to know someone, whom you might have been.  Someone who started the same career path you did at the same point in life, maybe, but made different choices than you along the way and ended up either much better off or much worse off than you are.  A college classmate perhaps. You think, that could have been me had I done things differently, or had I not had the lucky breaks I did.

People probably get this feeling at high school reunions.  I have never gone to a high school reunion, myself.

This is the role Chris Chandler plays in Henry Rios's life in Michael Nava's novel The Death of Friends.  Henry and Chris went to law school together, started practice at the same time, were briefly lovers.  But Henry refused to life his life in the closet.  Openly gay even in college, even in the 1970's, Henry's choices pulled him away from Chris who stayed in the closet, married, had a career with the Los Angelos District Attorney that made him a wealthy family man while Henry remained single and worked as a public defender representing people the rest of the system and society had long abandoned.

He and Chris remained friends for years but eventually drifted apart.

Then one night Zack, a young man claiming to be Chris Chandler's lover, arrives on Henry's doorstep seeking his help.  Zack says he found Chris Chandler lying dead on the floor of his downtown L.A. office. Will Henry help him?

The Death of Friends is the most morally ambiguous Henry Rios novel so far.  The case will take Henry into the underground world of male prostitution and the adult film business, but what makes the case most troubling for Henry is that he is never really sure of his client's innocence.  Henry will represent a guilty party, he believes in a justice system that provides representation for all parties, but he told Zack that he would not represent him if the evidence he finds suggests Zack did, in fact, kill Henry's old friend Chris Chandler.

Initially, Henry doesn't believe Zack could kill anybody, but by the novel's end he's not so sure.  This, the fifth Henry Rios novel, is the first time we've been left wondering.  Henry's moral position has always been secure up to now.  He defends people whom no one else will, but he has always been  right to do so before.  This time, maybe so, maybe not.

One of the things that separated Henry from Chris is the morality of Henry's choices.  He picked a career as a public defender over working for the prosecution knowing that it would limit his professional opportunities.  You often see a former prosecuter running for higher office, but you seldom see a defense attorney doing the same.  Henry stayed out of the closet and ended up alone while Chris passed himself off as heterosexual, found a wife and raised a son.

Did Henry make the right choices?

The Death of Friends is the final novel for Henry's former lover Josh.  The Henry Rios novels deal with Josh's HIV positive status, his worsening illness, the way he left Henry for another HIV positive man, and finally with his death.  True to form, Henry is too involved with his current case to spend much time with Josh in his final days, but he is there with Josh at the end.

With two more novels left in the series--I'm hoping to finish them all before school starts in August--it's clear that the books are really a portrait of one man much more than they are a series of detective stories.  Henry's story arc has become more compelling interest than the cases he is working on.  The books may also turn out to be a portrait of the AIDS crises.  As much as many people would have liked to avoid it, at least in the fiction they read, there really was no way to escape AIDS in the 1980's and 90's.  By the novel's end we find that even Chris Chandler, successful family man, was HIV positive.

An ironic twist of fate.  A fate that might easily have been Henry's.

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