Exclusive Excerpt: Michael Nava’s “Lay Your Sleeping Head” – A Henry Rios Novel


Thirty years ago, The Little Death introduced Henry Rios, a gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer who became the central figure in a celebrated seven novel series. In a brilliant reimagination of The Little Death, Lay Your Sleeping Head retains all the complexity and elegance of the plot of the original novel but deepens the themes of personal alienation and erotic obsession that both honored the traditions of the American crime novel and turned them on their head. Henry Rios, a gifted and humane lawyer driven to drink by professional failure and personal demons, meets a charming junky struggling to stay clean. He tells Rios an improbable tale of long-ago murders in his wealthy family. Rios is skeptical, but the erotic spark between them ignites an obsessive affair that ends only when the man’s body is discovered with a needle in his arm on the campus of a great California university. Rios refuses to believe his lover’s death was an accidental overdose. His hunt for the killer takes him down San Francisco’s mean streets and into Nob Hill mansions where he uncovers the secrets behind a legendary California fortune and the reason the man he loved had to die.



Hugh was staying in a nineteenth century cottage on a sketchy street deep in Hayes Valley. Late Victorian, Queen Anne’s style; wide wooden plank porch and intricate and extraneous wooden carvings and lattices, all of them in an advanced state of decay. I knew all this because I’d tricked a few times with a guy in the city who restored Victorians and whose idea of pillow talk was pulling out a pile of blue prints and showing me the differences between Gothic Revival and Eastlake and Italianate and Richardsonian Romanesque – Queen Anne was somewhere in there. I was standing at the uncurtained window watching the fog lurk in the street and half-listening for the howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles; this kind of wet, cold, spooky summer night was everything I disliked about the city.

Hugh was in bed, sleeping it off. The rusting pipes gurgled as they digested the bucket of his puke I’d poured down the toilet. At the ER he swore that evening was the first time he’d used in six months, as if that was supposed to make me feel better. The fact he’d been clean that long meant his usual fix could have been lethal. Fortunately for Hugh, the guy who’d wandered into his cubicle at Liberty Baths and found him passed out with his lips turning blue was a doctor. Otherwise, he’d be dead. 

“You little fuck,” I said softly but what I felt more than anger, more than anxiety, was sadness and confusion. This thing happening between us is what Hugh had called it. Me, I hadn’t called it anything, even to myself, but there was something  if not “a marriage of true minds” – what did Shakespeare mean by that anyway? – then at least a  recognition. Yes, that was a good way to think about it; a recognition. But what did we recognize in each other? I was an out-of-work, maybe washed up lawyer, with too much time on his hands and too many unanswerable questions on his mind and Hugh was – well, what he call himself – a wastrel? Old fashioned word. Here was another: a remittance man paid to stay away from his family who had wandered home where no one was waiting for him. Maybe all we had recognized was that we were each superfluous. Or was it loneliness? Isolation? Horniness?

I turned away from the window. In the kitchen I poured myself a glass of brandy.  The slow, smooth burn of expensive alcohol on my tongue – add to my list, and he drinks too much – failed to quiet the damning self-assessment rattling around in my head. Back into the living room I took stock of the odds and ends of furniture, couch, chair, a coffee table, a couple of floor lamps. Not nearly enough to furnish the big, oddly-shaped space, just enough to suggest transience. The walls were covered with a muted but quite ugly floral wallpaper, curling at the edges, where dark squares and circles and rectangles indicated where pictures had once been hung and furniture pushed against the wall.  The varnish had worn away on much of the wooden floor and the exposed wood was splintering.


This was home? Hell if I lived here, maybe I’d take drugs, too.  I wandered over to a built in bookshelf that held a couple of dozen books. Old, worn-out paperbacks, Tolkien, Herman Hesse, Howl  — a college sophomore’s library. The Joy of Gay Sex looked to be the newest addition. Next to it, oddly, was a worn-out copy of The Little Prince, the pages almost in tatters. A solitary, skinny volume lay face down on the bottom shelf. I reached for it, and turned it over: Whirligig: Selected Poems by Katherine Paris. Hugh’s mother? I scanned the table of contents and turned to a poem called “The Lost Child:”

When they cleaned you and gave you to me,
long legs and fingers, red glow
rising from creased flesh,
eyes already awake, gaze steady,
I shook for three days
in my knot of hospital sheets.

Tears came later—cries, fears, fierce holding.
The ways you’d shake me off.
Your well of rage. Over and over
you bloomed in your separate knowledge.

“Is that my mother’s book?”

He wore baggy sweat pants, thick wool socks and an old black cable-knit sweater over a black turtleneck. His pale skin was the texture of a parchment or a blown narcissus petal. The blue eyes were still like the sky, but the sky at twilight, the upper reaches fading into black. He had never look more fragile or more desolate up or more beautiful. I wanted to fold him into my arms but instead I handed him the book, still open to the poem I’d been reading.

“The Lost Child,” he read. “She didn’t lose me, she gave me away.” He pointed with the book to my glass. “Can I have some of that?”

We traded. I turned the book over to the dust jacket photo of the author. She had airbrushed to an indeterminate age and, because the photo was black and white, her hair could have been blonde or silver. Her face was as symmetrical as Hugh’s but the effect was statuary.

He went on a coughing jag. I put the book in the shelf, went over, took the glass before he dropped and then went into the kitchen and brought him water.

“Drink this,” I said.

He put his hand up, coughed a little more, then took the water and sipped it.

“Are you all right?” I asked him.

He slumped into the couch. “You asked me something like that at the jail,” he said. “It was a stupid question then and it’s a stupid question now.”

I stared at him. “So I guess that means you’re fine. In that case, I’ll be on my way.”

“No, please,” he said. “I’m sorry. Please.” He touched the cushion beside him. “Don’t go. Sit.”

I sat down. He drank his water. I sipped my brandy.

“What the fuck were you thinking, Hugh?” I asked softly.

“I was thinking I was strong enough to do what I had to do. I was wrong.”

I waited.

“I went to see my dad,” he said.

I was confused. “Your dad’s dead.”

“That was a lie,” he said. “Half-lie. He might as well be dead. He’s in an institution, Henry. He’s a schizophrenic.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but why didn’t you tell me? Why lie?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m afraid.”

I moved an inch closer to him. “Afraid of what, Hugh?”

“That I might be like him.”

“Why would you think that?”

“It was something someone said to me when I told them what my grandfather had done to me. He said, maybe I was imagining it, maybe it was – what’s the word the shrinks use – a confabulation.” He sprang to his feet and went to the same window where I had stood. “That something did happen to me but it wasn’t my grandfather who did it and I was blaming him because when my dad went into the hospital and my mom left and I went to live with my grandparents, I was too young to understand and I thought he had taken me away from them.” He turned from the window and looked at me, pleadingly. “Do you think that’s possible? Am I crazy.”

“What you told me your grandfather did to you,” I said quietly, “was pretty specific and it sounded very much like rape.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’ve been raped, Henry. More than once.” He shrugged. “A little white junkie boy running around Harlem and Alphabet City trying to score? Rape was the least of it. I was robbed and beaten, too. I’m lucky no one killed me.”

Anxiety constricted my chest as I listened to him and wondered whether anything he’d told me about himself was true. Or had it all been the ravings of a disordered mind? Then the lamplight glinted off his Patek Philippe watch. I thought about the hundreds in his wallet, the exquisite table manners. His mother’s book. The prep school photo, The healed track marks on his arm. No, it wasn’t all fantasy. He was from money, he was troubled, he was an addict. His story about his family was more consistent than not: he had been abandoned by both his parents. And even if these accusations against his grandfather conflated anger at their abandonment with unrelated memories of molested, that was not the type of confabulation I had encountered in the handful of my clients who had been diagnosed as schizophrenics.  Their confabulations were global and persistent and obvious after even ten minutes talking to them. I had just spent four intense days with Hugh Paris; no schizophrenic could have held it together that long or in those circumstances.

“Maybe you’re confused,” I said, “but I don’t believe you’re crazy, Hugh.”

“I want to believe that, too,” he said.

“What happened when you went to see your father?”

He crossed the room and sat down with me again. “I was nine the last time I saw him. He went off in a black car without even saying goodbye. I was heart-broken. My dad was more than my dad, Henry. He was my playmate. From as far back as I can remember he was always there, ready to get on the floor and let me climb all over him, to play hide and seek, or empty my toy box with me. And he told me stories. Wild stories.” His voice was breaking. He paused and breathed. “I know now those stories were part of his sickness but back then they were like our secret language. My mom, she wasn’t around much, so it was my dad who fed me and bathed and read me bedtime stories.”

The Little Prince,” I said.

“My little prince,” he said, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his sweater. “That’s what he called me.”

“And today?”

“He didn’t know who I was,” Hugh said. “I tried to remind me but he said he didn’t remember having a son. I brought The Little Prince with me. He stared at it like he had never seen it before. Nothing, Henry. There was nothing in his eyes when he looked at me.”

I held him and let him cry.


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