When John Weir’s debut novel, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, was published in the late 1980s, it was immediately recognized by critics across the country as one of the most perceptive, unsentimental, and beautifully written accounts of the political and emotional consequences of AIDS on both individuals and a community. In What I Did Wrong, his long-awaited second novel, Weir has written another powerfully moving—and often disarmingly funny—book about loss, character, and sexuality in the post-AIDS era, a survivor’s tale in an age when all the certainties have lost their logic and focus.
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John Weir is the author of The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Details, Spin, New York, and the Advocate, as well as numerous anthologies.From The Washington Post:
I'd hardly started John Weir's second novel before alarm bells went off. A joke about Guy being the best first name for a fellow to have -- because he would get to hear it used so often and amicably -- sounded familiar. Same with an observation, a few pages later, that a passage from Hemingway has something to tell us about the AIDS epidemic. And the coffee smell that pours out of Hoboken every morning to drift across the Hudson and perfume Manhattan's West Side -- wasn't that an olfactory echo? Since Weir has published only one other novel, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket (1989), about a charmingly feckless young man who contracts AIDS and dies, it was easy to go back and check my suspicions: No doubt about it -- these were examples of an author repeating himself.
But by book's end, I had more than pardoned him. Given the superiority of What I Did Wrong to The Irreversible Decline, the recycling of a few tropes seems almost admirable. "Yes, I may not have gotten it right the first time around," Weir seems to be saying, "but let me see if I can't do better now." Indeed he has. What I Did Wrong is a tragicomic reworking of a theme from the earlier book -- the lasting effect of AIDS on surviving friends.
In the new novel, Tom, a gay, 40ish English teacher at Queens College, sets out to tell the story of his interactions with Richie, an old friend, and Justin, a promising poet from one of Tom's classes. Richie has a girlfriend, whom he constantly refers to as "the girl friend" rather than by name -- not a good sign. Though Justin, who is in his late twenties, is apparently straight, he seems open to experimentation, and Weir keeps the reader wondering whether he and the prof will get something going.
As Tom, Richie, Justin and various women friends meet to drink and gab in their apartments and favorite bars, the late Zack keeps invading the narrative. He is the closest of Tom's many friends to have died during the darkest years of AIDS, the 1980s and early '90s. While alive, Zack was a fountainhead of sarcasm and self-deprecation. "My T-cell count is lower than my IQ," he once quipped. "If I were Dan Quayle, I'd be dead now." He continues to exert an outsized influence on Tom from beyond the grave.
Zack's bitter humor was a defense mechanism against something that has plagued Tom too: hazing and cruelty from straight boys. For Tom, the disrespect culminated when he was heckled on stage while acting in a high school play. But he is a good teacher, and if anything can save him from feeling sorry for himself, it's his students. "They were working-class kids from Queens," he recalls of his first encounter with a class, "and I was an art fag from lower Manhattan. We were each other's queer. Some of them looked like the thugs who hassled me in high school. They didn't trash me, though. They looked up to me."
One reason for their adoration is that the other men in their lives are such letdowns. "Like me," Tom sums up, "like Zack, like all the women I know, and, it turns out, like most of the men, my students have never met a man -- a buddy or big brother or gym coach or boss -- who didn't eventually make them feel . . . worthless. . . . In that way, homosexuals are just like everyone else. America is a place where everybody has a bad relationship with a man."
The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket had its moments -- tart one-liners, insights into what it's like to be a sissy in America -- but everything that happened after Eddie declined seemed anti-climactic. Almost two decades later, this time sticking with the best friend left behind after an AIDS death -- a survivor who eventually comes to a shocking but liberating realization about his feelings toward the deceased -- Weir wields a controlled artistry. He's so confident now that, in Tom's voice, he can encapsulate gay male literature in a single paragraph, a bravura riff on how various fiction writers might approach Justin as a character: "If I were Dennis Cooper, I would cut him up, but tenderly. If I were Edmund White, I'd rhapsodize about his ass. If I were Genet, we'd be in prison. If I were John Rechy, talking to Justin would cost me fifty bucks" -- and so on, from Gore Vidal to Mary Renault to Oscar Wilde. Here's a suggested addition to that stellar lineup. !
"If I were John Weir," Tom might say, "I would write fairly well about Justin, then go back, try again and capture him brilliantly."
Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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