In Christodora, the Impact of AIDS and Activism Resonates Over Decades

Christodora, a novel out this fall from Grove, has got it all: drugs, sex, music, race, class, art, activism, adoption, and tears. It’s a gut-wrenching, happy-ending story told in chapters that jump backward and forward in time all the way from 1981 to 2021. I hope it will be turned into a great movie directed by, say, Gus Van Sant, or Kimberly Peirce, or Steve McQueen.

At the center of the involving, albeit sometimes confusing, narrative is Mateo, the biological child of Ysabel Mendes, a Latina AIDS activist known as “Issy” who dies of the dreaded disease in the early ’90s. Though she worked hard toward effective and affordable treatment, those advances tragically come a few years too late. However, Issy did manage to prevent passing the disease to her son by using AZT, the toxic drug that was for several years the main weapon against death for people living with AIDS like her. Before she dies, she asks her friend Ava Heyman, a city health official (with bipolar disorder), to accept some of the responsibility for looking after Mateo, who lands in an orphanage. Ava’s adult daughter, Millicent, meets Mateo there and persuades her husband, Jared, to adopt him when he’s 5. (In a clever echo of Issy’s challenge, Millicent’s main motivation to adopt rather than give birth is to avoid passing down her mother’s mental illness.)

Millicent and Jared live in the Christodora, a large doorman building in the East Village. The apartment was provided for them by Jared’s father, a wealthy white guy on the Upper East Side. Millicent and Jared are rich white liberal artists and teachers, and they come with all the faults and foibles of the type (and then some). Mateo, the little boy, is a mix of Hispanic and black, and some of the grief in store for the family has roots in the dissonance between the white liberals with good intentions and the black boy increasingly confused by his posh lifestyle.

Another central character is AIDS activist Hector Villanueva, who was once Ysabel’s friend and who also lives, for a while, in the Christodora. It’s a haven where he escapes from his sadness over the death of his lover, using crystal meth and marathon sex with strangers as distractions. (The white people evict him, eventually.) He and Mateo develop an unlikely friendship based first on hardcore drug use and then, more meaningfully, on the shared connection to Issy, whose name Mateo gets tattooed onto his fingers. The most moving scene in the book is when Hector, depressed and ailing, tells Mateo for the first time about Issy and leads him to rare video footage of his fierce and healthy mother demanding equal consideration for women with AIDS.

Tim Murphy, the author of two previous novels, is a reporter who’s been following AIDS activism and life in the East Village for many years, and he’s currently the media coordinator for Gays Against Guns, a group which has adapted ACT UP–style activism to gun policy in the wake of the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida. His prose has an easy, fluent style with plentiful references to popular music (Madonna, Leonard Cohen, Lupe Fiasco), historical figures (Ed Koch, Marina Abramovic), and notable places (including in Los Angeles, where some of his scenes are set). He’s good at building scenes into dramatic, sometimes scary climaxes. He’s especially vivid on the subject of drug addiction and the bottoming-out always around the corner for his characters who indulge in the hardest substances—heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth.

In one emotionally harrowing scene shortly after the death of Hector’s lover to AIDS in the early ’90s—an era I recall all too well, having lived through it in New York—Issy calls him to apologize for not showing up at the funeral. She was too ill and is dying herself. It’s the worst of times:

He hung up. Even in his haze, he felt that bad feeling he’d felt with Issy the past six months. It would never be the same again after what had happened. This, he thought on some murky, inchoate level, was what happened as people—a network of people—faced the end, as they realized their collective dreams weren’t coming true, that they were running faster but falling behind, that they were losing coherence and morale. They connected in rash, inappropriate ways, because, most of the time, they were unable to connect at all. The survival instinct was to isolate.

Christodora is itself a response to that isolation instinct—it’s a graceful reaching-out following what must have been, for the author, a long and tortuous reaching-within. Murphy’s troubled characters move deliberately toward but instinctively away from each other, too unsettled and sad to be comfortably together, too human and hopeful to stay apart for long.