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.
When the author sent this book to me for review, I warned him that if he made me cry I would—when I met him in person one day—pop him upside the head. He suggested I might just be popping him because he felt I just might cry.
And Mr. Reed was right. I did cry. Not because the author pulled out all the bawling stops and cranked up the tears-in-your-eyes machine and made his characters pitiful and tragic and heart-wrenchingly sad. I cried because he did not do that. He did just the opposite and that made me cry.
He made them real. Really real.
Caregiver was not like reading fiction where sometimes I feel tragedy is incorporated purely for emotion’s sake, to render me a big crying mass. Instead, this book was a simple story about a guy, Dan Calzolaio, who volunteers his time as a ‘buddy’ for the AIDS Alliance and the agonizingly touching yet ultimately wonderful change in his life upon meeting and growing close to his patient, Adam.
It’s a touching tale about four men—Dan, his lover Mark; Adam and his lover, Sullivan.
No talking about plot, as always. The blurb can fill you in.
This was not my first Rick Reed novel. But it was the first book in which I finally realized just what it is about the author that draws me to his stories.
In Reed’s works, there are no heroes. There are no Alphas, no Betas. They’re just everyday folk like you and me. And I was never more aware of this fact than in Caregiver.
Reed’s characters are brutally frank, unforgiving in their humanness. Especially Adam. In any other novel, at the hand of some other author, he could even come close to being an antagonist with his saucy, caustic humor. And the thing I cherished about him was that the author didn’t try to candy-coat him, to pretend that his all his glaring, arsenic laden sarcasm and flippancy were covering his fear.
In fact, in one scene, Adams says, So I never asked God, why me? It’s more like I ask Him, what the Hell took you so long? That was his personality. Candid. Honest. Unapologetic. And that was the thing that touched my heart. No false bravado. Just resignation to his disease and a sincere, unflattering evaluation of his own human condition. For me, for some reason—because it hit a deep spot in my heart—his very acceptance of his plight was more painful to see than the illness itself.
When Adam’s past catches up with him, he is sent to jail and the bullying he suffers there is eye-opening and excruciating to read. A reminder of the period during the height of the AIDS scare and the paranoia and fear surrounding the disease. But, what was more poignant to me was Adam’s quiet tolerance of the cruelty. To see this gutsy, saucy little fellow bearing up under the torment with his usual calm and acceptance and up yours attitude was both hard and heart-warming for me to read. I admired him—horribly so—yet ached for him.
This book focuses, too, on Dan’s own fears with the deadly virus when he endures the long wait for his AIDS test results. Reed, as many of us can, obviously remembers this era vividly and portrayed that chills-up-the-spine-sick-at-your-gut fear while awaiting your sentence—positive or negative.
I realize I’m dwelling much on Adam; but, for me, his beautifully depicted character IS this book. If you read this book, if you have read this book, you’ll feel familiarity with him, you’ll have a friend in your own life just like him. In fact, you’ll recognize all the fellows—Dan, Adam, Mark and Sullivan.
There is a romance in Caregiver. It, too, is thick with the reality of the era—guilt for one’s fears of sexual relations with a stricken lover, guilt for daring to love another after that loved one is gone, and the effect that the fear of such a mysterious disease has on attempts at new relationships.
Some authors might consult the medical dictionaries for diseases and ailments to incorporate into their romances for drama, and then here comes a novel penned by a man who wrote first-hand, from his heart, the real thing. Rick Reed’s story is one of those treasures where a fictional story has, at its beautiful heart, a big truth that can only be told from true life. From the soul of a man who was there in the trenches and who used his talent—his gift—and his knowledge to share it with us.