It’s 1991, and Dan Calzolaio has just moved to Florida with his lover, Mark, having fled Chicago and Mark’s addictions to begin a new life on the Gulf Coast. Volunteering for the Tampa AIDS Alliance is just one part of that new beginning, and that’s how Dan meets his new buddy, Adam.
Adam Schmidt is not at all what Dan expected. The guy is an original—witty, wry, and sarcastic with a fondness for a smart black dress, Barbra Streisand, and a good mai tai. Adam doesn’t let his imminent death get him down, even through a downward spiral that sees him thrown in jail.
Each step of Adam’s journey teaches Dan new lessons about strength and resilience, but it’s Adam’s lover, Sullivan, to whom Dan feels an almost irresistible pull. Dan knows the attraction isn’t right, even after he dumps his cheating, drug-abusing boyfriend. But then Adam passes away, and it leaves Sullivan and Dan both alone to see if they can turn their love for Adam into something whole and real for each other.
The book you hold in your hands is a combination of memory, fancy, imagination, and the culmination of the author’s realization about the elusive nature of love.
It’s about me. It’s about you. It’s about all of us, especially if we are lucky enough to have loved someone, even if only briefly, who profoundly changed our lives, simply by example…”
Sometimes someone enters our life and leaves an indelible mark on us even though our time with them may equal only a moment if measured against the span of a lifetime. And yet, we are fundamentally changed as a result of having known them.
Caregiver by Rick R. Reed is the intensely moving story of such a relationship. It’s about the personal journey that Dan Calzolaio embarks upon as a result of the friendship he forms with Adam Schmidt when he volunteers to be his AIDS buddy. Dan believes that his role is to help Adam who has developed full-blown AIDS and is dying. But Adam is not at all what Dan expects when they first meet, and as their short-lived friendship deepens it is Adam that in many ways rescues Dan and changes the course of his life forever.
I began reading Caregiver thinking that it would be at my leisure and with this in mind my intention was to read the first few chapters during the evening before turning out the lights for bed. Foolish me. The expression of best-laid plans definitely applies in this instance. I was unable to put the book down and read it into the wee hours of the morning finishing the novel in one sitting.
Although Caregiver is not the first of Mr. Reed’s stories to deal with the subject of HIV/AIDS, being familiar with his previous works, I suspect that he’s been circling the edges of writing this particular story for a while. An indication of this came in the form of a poignant short story entitled Last Date, which was featured in his 2010 compilation Tales From The Sexual Underground (MLR Press). In Last Date, Mr. Reed provides a personal account of his last visit with his AIDS buddy Jim, before Jim dies while serving time in a Florida state prison. Although Caregiver is a fictional story, it is heavily based on the author’s relationship with Jim.
The approach taken in the writing of this novel only serves to heighten the intimate and semi-autobiographical nature of the story. Caregiver is a novel within a novel and the character of Dan is a successful romance author who has penned his and Adam’s story some twenty years after Adam’s death. The story begins in the present and Dan has just received an email from his agent informing him that she refuses to shop his manuscript because, given his romance readership, it likely won’t sell. Angered and upset at this rejection Dan begins reading the manuscript and with this takes the reader back in time, to 1991, and his first meeting with Adam and from there the entire story unfolds. In Caregiver, Mr. Reed not only mirrors the relational links between himself and Dan, and Jim and Adam, he also parallels some of the circumstances of both his and Jim’s life with that of the corresponding fictional characters.
The novel is dedicated to Jim as a tribute to his friend and the impact that Jim had and, I imagine, continues to have on the author’s life. After having read Caregiver I came away with the impression that this story is also Mr. Reed’s honouring of the thousands of men who, in those first fifteen years of the epidemic, succumbed to the disease quickly because of the absence of life-extending antiretroviral therapies, all too often dying alone.
Among the many defining qualities of Mr. Reed’s writing is his ability to write from multiple perspectives and create textured characters that are altogether human without judgment, and he has done so in this novel. By extension, the relationships in this story are written with equal integrity as he explores their emotional complexities with honesty. In keeping with this, Caregiver is written in the third person with Dan as the main narrator and includes the secondary perspectives of Mark and Sullivan.
Dan’s voice is the most expansive because the story is foremost about his journey. Mr. Reed digs deep into this character. At story’s beginning, he is a man in denial about many aspects of his life in particular his relationship with his boyfriend Mark. His denial and self-deprecating nature render him an enabler to Mark’s addiction and co-dependent. We travel with Dan as he faces the lies that substance abuse engenders, and his hurt, anger and fear at the realization that in the throws of his addiction Mark’s choices and actions may have endangered his own life. Adam is the driving force behind Dan’s coming to terms with his life. As their relationship quickly evolves from volunteer-client to friendship, Adam encourages Dan to face all of these issues and to take control of his own life and well-being.
Mr. Reed provides the perspectives of Mark and Sullivan in certain parts of the story. There is at least one chapter in the book that is devoted exclusively to each of these characters bringing an understanding of who these men are, and the circumstance and motivations behind their choices and actions. The chapter devoted to Mark shows the reader what addiction is and what it can do to an otherwise decent man. The knee-jerk reaction is to dislike Mark because of his selfishness and deception, and his betrayal of Dan. But again, owing to Mr. Reed’s propensity for exploring the realities of both the beauty and ugliness of the human condition, despite Mark’s self-destructive nature he emerges as someone for whom the reader can have empathy, if not a level of compassion. Sullivan in many respects is the polar opposite of Mark, a sensitive and caring man who only wants to take care of Adam. Sullivan and Adam have been together for many years and have endured thick and thin. And while they love each other, Adam’s infection has driven an emotional wedge in their relationship because Sullivan is unable to have a sexual relationship with him.
The only character’s personal introspection that we do not read in this novel is that of Adam’s. Possibly deliberate on the author’s part it serves as a highly effective lever in not only emphasizing that Adam is very much a catalyst in the lives of Dan and Sullivan, it also serves to subconsciously remind and prepare the reader that Adam is dying and will not continue to be a physical presence in their lives. And yet, not only do we get to know this character as well as the others through Dan and Sullivan’s eyes, Adam in many respects emerges as larger than life. He explodes onto the page at his first meeting with Dan refusing to stop living because of his illness, and to a certain degree is the character that dominates this story throughout. As a result of circumstances largely related to the effects of AIDS, Adam ends up in jail and when he’s transferred to a state prison, some three hours drive from Dan, the only means of regular communication between them is through letter writing. Adam’s letters to Dan reveal the man behind the veneer of wit, sarcasm and a que sera attitude. Through his letters Adam’s vulnerability is revealed, his anger for having AIDS and what the disease has done to him, his loneliness and his fear of dying. And yet, his courage and sense of humour never waiver. Some of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching prose in this novel is found within the letters that Adam and Dan exchange.
As much as Caregiver is a story about the lives and relationships of these four men, in particular Dan’s journey through his friendship with Adam, it is just as much about HIV/AIDS. In some of his past works dealing with the subject matter, Mr. Reed has kept this issue as the backdrop to the overall story. With Caregiver, AIDS is very much in the forefront as Mr. Reed not only writes of the devastating physical and psychological effects of the disease on Adam, or the impacts of Adam’s suffering on Sullivan and Dan, he also writes about the realities of HIV/AIDS that all four men face, whether infected or not.
The ability of an author to transport me to that emotional place and make me feel what the characters are experiencing is an essential quality that I look for as a reader. Mr. Reed more than achieves this through his writing of this novel as he offers the reader his unique brand of love story. Through Dan’s journey and the connections of these four men, the reinforcing messages of Caregiver are not about illness, death or even loss, but rather about our capacity to love on many levels; our ability for understanding, compassion and forgiveness; the hope that love brings for second chances; and most of all, that friendship and love do not end when we physically cease to be.
I found much beauty in the sadness of this story and much hope through the tears that I shed while reading it. The indelible image of hands touching a plate of glass as the only means through which caring and love can be given will always remind me of Mr. Reed’s Caregiver. There is a sense of rightness and symmetry for Dan and Sullivan at story’s end and Adam is always near.
Some readers may shy away from this novel because of the subject matter of HIV/AIDS. I encourage them to not do so because they will be missing out on a beautiful story. I recommend Caregiver without hesitation as one of Mr. Reed’s most heartfelt novels and at the same time one of his most life-embracing stories.
Caregiver by Rick R. Reed is available at Dreamspinner Press.
Music: Shiny Happy People – R.E.M. (Out of Time, 1991)
NOTE: This review was originally published at Three Dollar Bill Reviews.