by Tim Murphy
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
Christodora is a brilliantly wrought novel epic in scope, but executed with a deft and sure hand. It is the story of a fabled apartment building, a neighborhood, a movement, and a city through the eyes of a group of unforgettable characters. From the early days of AIDS in the eighties until the not-so-distant year of 2021, the plot weaves in and out of time, adeptly leaving the reader eager for more at the end of each chapter. All is forthcoming, cliffhangers finished and surprises in store, the expected doesn’t always turn out the way you tell yourself it will.
One of the novel’s central characters, whose actions and choices end up tying many of the main protagonists together, is a young Latina, Issy. She contracts HIV through a sexual encounter with a bisexual man in the eighties and finds herself in the middle of the large community of radical AIDS activists from whom she draws strength and purpose. Later, under treatment with AZT, she delivers a healthy baby boy whom is later adopted by a prosperous young artistic couple living in the Christodora building on Ninth Street facing Tompkins Square Park. I lived just around the corner on Tenth Street in the AIDS years and the author captures a painful yet also joyful time perfectly. Every detail is there, from what gay young men like myself wore almost as a uniform and where a neighborhood ate, drank, danced, and socialized.
And then there’s ACT UP. Murphy doesn’t name the movement, but it could be no other. Brave young men and women fought hard for the attention of an indifferent, obstructionist government and nation. He captures the meetings, the varied and colorful protesters, the demonstrations that all culminated in the life-saving drugs that today are saving our lives and preventing more infections. Murphy also reminds us beautifully that it wasn’t only middle-class, white young men who were dying during those early years, all the time fighting for their lives and the lives of their compatriots. There are many stories to tell in this highly compelling novel. He writes authentically of addiction, mental health, parenting, and the many manifestations of sexual identity in our modern era.
At the novel’s closing chapter we find Mateo, Issy’s adult son, returning to New York. This isn’t his first trip back after a self-imposed exile in L.A., but he knows in his heart that it will be transformative. He is returning to complete an art project on the Lower East Side, his home turf at the height of his struggle with drugs. Gazing out the plane window, he sees Manhattan, (“There will never be a drug that hits him as hard and as fast as New York City, the first sight of which, swallowed whole from above, seizes him with dizzying waves of exhilaration, nostalgia, and panic.”) At its heart, this story lives by the color the author breathes into his protagonists, their joys, their sorrows, and ultimately, their redemption.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.