As the novel opens, polls show Proposition 54, as it is numbered, holding a 12-point lead. The medical consensus was shifting then, from the early fear that AIDS could be spread by casual contact, to the eventual understanding that it is communicable only in a limited number of avoidable ways, such as by unsafe sex, an infected blood transfusion or needle-sharing among drug addicts. Prop 54’s proponents, however — a right-wing congressman and a coalition of religious groups — regard AIDS as divine retribution for the “abomination” of homosexuality, which they are determined to stamp out in California. (Like most other Americans at the time, they are unaware that HIV can also be transmitted via straight sex.)
In clumsy hands, this setup could lead to a stacked-deck battle between mean-spirited crusaders and beleaguered gay activists, but Nava, a six-time Lambda Literary Award winner, paints a nuanced portrait of a fascinating character on the pro-initiative side. Daniel Herron is the pastor of a nondenominational church called Ekklesia who accepted Jesus Christ as his savior almost two decades earlier, during his hippie phase in San Francisco. His dilemma in 1986 is that he still cherishes the values of peace and compassion that he embraced during the Summer of Love but feels bound to uphold the biblical teaching on homosexuality.
Some gay foes of the initiative — they go by the moniker QUEER, for Queers United to End Erasure and Repression — are angry enough to flirt with violence. The flirtation reaches a consummation when a bomb blows up at Ekklesia, killing someone who wasn’t supposed to be there at the time. Rios, a criminal defense attorney, ends up representing two clients with ties to the killer, one of whom is the attorney’s new boyfriend.
Lawyers and laws abound in “Lies With Man,” a title that riffs on the denunciation of homosexuality in the Book of Leviticus. A nice touch appears on an introductory page. Nava gives us the proposition’s text followed by the state attorney general’s explanation of what it means and would accomplish. Ahead of each election, every registered California voter receives in the mail a sample ballot containing such explanations, which are necessary to foil initiative-sponsors’ efforts to mask their intentions. As you might guess, the feature that Proposition 54’s sponsors want to fudge is the quarantine camps.
A similar proposition appeared on the real-life California ballot in November 1986 but lost decisively. To crank up the drama of his story, Nava makes the vote much closer. That is certainly his prerogative, but I would have liked to see some analysis of why Californians — both actual and fictional — rejected the impulse to quarantine. (The contemporary covid-related quarantines are different in being largely self-enforced, and those quarantined are not ghettoized in camps.)
In Nava’s telling, justice is not only blind but, on occasion, also two-headed. Take, for example, the assault victim who fears that the sum total of evidence he can provide to a criminal court will fall short of the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard required to convict his assailant. At Rios’s direction, his client instead files a suit for monetary damages in a civil court, where a plaintiff can prevail with a mere preponderance of the evidence.
With so much law going on, I hasten to report that Nava explains it all clearly. Nor is he above making fun of the profession. Invited into a judge’s chambers, Rios notes the profusion of framed certificates on the walls, along with “the obligatory plaques handed out like candy by various bar associations; no profession is as self-congratulatory as the law.” The law can also congratulate itself for turning out more than its share of novelists, including the talented Michael Nava.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
Lies with Man
By Michael Nava
Amble Press. 282 pp. Paperback, $17.95