What I Did Wrong — John Weir
Eddie Socket was a once-in-a-career book, in no small part because it appeared at a time when a fictional response to AIDS (and a literary reflection on the lives of urban gay men living through what felt very much like a war) was coalescing, and writers were still chafing under Andrew Holleran’s pronouncement that “no one will ever be able to write a novel about AIDS” (a dictate that he, himself, has repeatedly violated).
With Eddie Socket, John Weir expressed in print what none or few had managed; it isn’t a great book solely because of its Zeitgeist, but it can’t be ignored that Weir said something perfect about an era and managed to do it that era was still going on. That’s no mean feat.
What I Did Wrong doesn’t have the impeccable timing of Eddie Socket, and it doesn’t have the same sense of being an immediate, vital, and inevitable response to its age. If it’s a bit unfocused, and it is, perhaps it’s solely because the times we live in are unfocused: identity, desire, right, wrong, good, evil. As the deconstructionists said (and said and said and said), all of that was going to pass through the industrial grinder of the 1990s and come out on the other end looking more or less unrecognizable.
And that’s what What I Did Wrong wants to (forgive the word) foreground: the way things (d)evolved, the way surviving AIDS turned out to be simply what happened next for a lot of gay men of Weir’s (and my) generation. The gay “community” many of us thought we belonged to because of the activism and immediacy that attended AIDS (or simply because of the respite that caring for sick and dying friends gave us from thinking about the larger implications of what was going on around us) moved on: my own 23-year-old queer nephew finds “all that AIDS stuff” as distant as I find accounts of living through the blitz of London.
And, in the meantime, “gay” changed as well, and one of the most fascinating things about What I Did Wrong is the way Weir’s characters are rummaging around in heterosexuality as much as they are in homosexuality, trying to figure out where or if the boundaries are—or, more to the point, *when* they are. In fact, what Weir has to say, and very plainly, about masculinity and the nature of being male has more truth in it than fifty articles in The Feminist Review.
Anyone who’s alive in America today, especially young people, knows that Weir got this detail exactly right: We live a confusing reality in which every repressive, homophobic, closeted, retrograde, and funky response to queers and to being queer exists smack alongside levels of unprecedented openness, visibility, and cultural amalgamation and assimilation that were literally unforeseeable twenty years ago, in the long, lurid twilight of Reagan. It’s the queer decade; it’s the homophobe decade. You can hardly watch an hour of prime time TV today without seeing happy hordes of well adjusted homos; you can hardly watch an hour of news without learning that, somewhere in the world, queers are committing suicide, being fired or excommunicated, undergoing beatings or executions. We’re the Pope’s favorite target for damnation; what’s more, we’re big box office and, at the same time, no big deal.
It’s all very confusing; and Weir manages to work that sense of disorientation into What I Did Wrong—not as an intellectual question, but as the highly pragmatic quandary of a man in his 40s who lives in a New York—not to say an America—that is barely recognizable.
It’s true: What I Did Wrong is a bit short on plot—or, better said, it’s got the kind of postmodern plot that “regards” plot and comments on it. You’re either OK with that or you aren’t; that is, you’re either satisfied with following Tom through his often-present-tense descriptions of the “new,” “post-AIDS” world, or you’re looking for someone to tell you an entirely made-up story. There’s less “story” here, in that sense, than there is a semi-autobiographical account of “what happened” (whether it’s literally autobiographical, I couldn’t say, but it is written that way: it’s Tom’s autobiography). But that doesn’t mean the novel doesn’t take you for a ride. And it’s true: John Weir is sometimes too arch for his own good—in the novel for sure, but also in his response here to critics. (For the latter, I hardly blame him: the downside of Amazon’s “citizen reviews” is that people who couldn’t write a grocery list post hateful and/or stupid and/or ignorant drivel, and at a certain point in life you feel like you’ve stood quietly by and let enough stupidity go unchallenged.)
In short, What I Did Wrong is a book for people who “get it.” If you don’t know what Weir is talking about or you just don’t care, look elsewhere. If survival, in all permutations of the word, is as troubling a business to you as it ought to be, What I Did Wrong—for all its gritty urban ambiance and its millennial, “I’m so over it” sarcasm—is an exploration of being, an existential question mark, a riff on a cultural memory that too few of us still bear.