CHRISTODORA, by Tim Murphy. Grove Press, 430 pp., $26.
To write a novel as full of truth as “Christodora,” journalist Tim Murphy had to know Manhattan; he had to know AIDS; he had to be fluent in the languages of visual art, addiction, activism, bipolar disease and depression; he had to have American cultural history from 1981 at his fingertips.
Then he had to make all that information disappear, more or less, by seamlessly embodying it in characters and plot. Not contrivances or vehicles, but three-dimensional people. Not pasted-in paragraphs of research or lectures masquerading as dialogue, but storylines.
He pulls it off with very few lapses, developing a rich and complicated New York saga that bounces around in time — 2001, 2009, 1981, 1992, and on to 2021, each chapter shifting the spotlight among the characters. It’s an exciting read, sometimes a little confusing, but ultimately all the pieces fit together; the reader’s patience is rewarded.
The story begins in the Christodora, a real apartment building in the East Village, the home of Milly Heyman and Jared Traum, two artists who are raising an adopted child named Mateo. Mateo is the son of Ysabel Mendes, who died of AIDS when Mateo was 11 months old. Ysabel designated Milly’s mother, Ava, who runs a center for women with AIDS, as his legal guardian, and he was placed in a Catholic boys’ home until the age of 4. Then Milly started teaching art classes at the center, met Mateo and fell in love with him. Thus he was adopted into the Jewish intelligentsia.
It doesn’t completely take. By 2009, he’s become M-Dreem, “so fly in his high-tops and massive T-shirts, the little prince of Art and Design High School.” Soon after, drugs enter the picture in a big way. On heroin, he can escape the contradiction between his “fancy white life” and his true origins, “the son of a woman who died of AIDS and an unknown baby daddy.” As he thinks of it, the drug lets him “go through the hole in the sky,” “like when Bugs Bunny, being chased, saws a circle out of the air around him and jumps into it.”
All the players in Mateo’s world get their turn at center stage: His adoptive mom, Milly, a kind, sensitive and physically beautiful woman who struggles with the mental health challenges she’s inherited from her mother, Ava. Ava herself, whose chapter is written with so many exclamation points that you can almost feel the manic episode coming on. Milly’s best friend Drew, a writer and blogger of the kind who mines every bit of her life for material, a druggie who is forced to solve her problem early on. Mateo’s real mom, Ysabel, whom we meet shaking her booty at a gay club in 1984, her hair styled just like Sheila E.’s. That night she meets Hector, a young AIDS activist and the character who connects all the threads of the story. But he’s not just a plot device — he blooms into a difficult, angry, self-indulgent old queen who’s as real as can be.
AIDS drops like a stone into the pool these characters live in. Those of us whose lives were deeply affected by it, and have lived on past it, will recognize and admire the crescendo and diminuendo Murphy traces. Another achievement of the book is its depiction of the heartbreaking aspects of parenting, a project not subject to the laws of physics or mathematics: What you put in is not always what you get out.
Finally, readers will appreciate Murphy’s discipline in shaping his story. While “Christodora” has the scope of other New York epics, such as “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Goldfinch” and “City on Fire,” it is slimmer than any of these by several hundred pages. Capacious yet streamlined, it is a very fine book.