Friday, March 31st, 2023

More than a lack of brown-skinned characters in the most widely diffused 1970s American gay novels

Lay Your Sleeping Head

by Michael Nava

A Henry Rios Novel

Published by Korima Press

Published November 30, 2016
276 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

April 9, 2017.

In a substantial afterword to Lay Your Sleeping Head (2016), a reworking of his first novel The Little Death (1986), Michael Nava writes:

Most of the gay fiction I read at the time [1976–77] seemed to be by writers who accepted this morose formulation [diseased and condemned]. The so-called post-Stonewall fiction emanating from New York in the mid-1970s was anything but liberating. These celebrated novels were about doomed, self-hating queens who took drugs, went to dance clubs, had emotionless sex and no visible community…. Nothing could have been more alien to my life, my experience of myself, or my aspirations.

In contrast, he tells us that Joseph Hansen’s insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter novels

…legitimated my hopes and aspirations. Brandstetter was the kind of grown-up I could imagine myself becoming: a competent professional who was also unapologetically gay and who demanded to be respected on both counts. For me, Joe’s novels were the fiction of gay liberation.

I agree with the contrast, though the epitome of doomed 1970s New York disco bunny faggot, Dancer from the Dance, was not published until 1978, the same year as Nocturnes for the King of Naples, and Faggots. And the affirmative portrayal of gay San Francisco in the first volume of Tales of the City also appeared in 1978.

Conspicuous by the absence of mention if George Baxt’s black, gay detective, Pharaoh Love, who debuted in A Queer Kind of Death in 1966, with 1967 and 1968 (i.e., pre-Stonewall) sequels.

Nava knew Hansen and admired Hansen’s Brandsetter novels.

Including the cover, I have to note that the only dark-skinned (Chicano) character in the book does not have chest hair: this is specifically commented on, and he attributes it to “Indian blood.” BTW in expanding his first novel, Nava has also envisioned Henry Rios becoming more sexually versatile.

I wrote about Nava, the exclusively activo Henry Rios (the lawyer protagonist of his first seven and most recent novels), and Arturo Islas (who shared a Stanford connection with both) in a chapter in Latin American Male Homosexualities (1995, University of New Mexico Press), a book that is still in print. And I reviewed what he proclaimed as the last Henry Rios novel, which is the one most focused on family, least on murders, Rag and Bone (2001), here.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.