I feel a bit strange writing a review of John Weir’s What I Did Wrong, as he writes extensively about being a professor at Queens College, which is where I met him when I sat in his class for the first time. Coming to the novel as both a character and a reader was an interesting experience, though certainly this is a book that would have stayed with me for a long time even if I hadn’t known the author.
A memory: years ago, shortly after the publication of What I Did Wrong, some friends and I went to a reading at the LGBT Community Center in New York. We met with our professor, who was looking rather scandalously disheveled for someone about to make a professional appearance. Yet he’d arrived prepared — he brandished his razor and shaving cream as concrete proof of his preparedness. We all shuffled together into the multi-stall unisex bathroom and kept him company as he shaved and brushed down his shirt for errant wrinkles and crumbs, patted down his hair, then asked if he looked presentable enough.
You’ll do, we said, nodding and grinning in amusement at the whole experience — the inversion of the roles of teacher and student, adult and youth. Although we only were in each others’ lives for a brief time, a semester or two, I can’t think of him without thinking of that openness of spirit that welcomed us backstage into the writer’s life. Is that what an author is? Someone who brings along his new friends to watch him shave two minutes before going on stage to read heart-wrenchingly vivid sections of his new novel? So when Weir writes in What I Did Wrong that his narrator Tom is “trying to be the first nice American man” and describes his deep love for his students, I had a difficult time separating professor Tom from the professor I knew.
John Weir is a very nice man indeed. That’s only one reason why you should read his books.
On the surface, What I Did Wrong follows Tom through one manic night. He meets up with his childhood friend Richie, who is planning on cheating on his long-term girlfriend with a woman that he met online that calls herself Afrodytea. Tom is thrown into memories — one might even argue that he lives more in memory than the present — and we quickly learn that he is absorbed by the death of his friend Zack, who died of AIDS five years prior to the action of the novel. Zack, intensely acerbic and angry, turns into Tom’s alter ego, forcing him to answer difficult questions about his feelings for his student Justin Innocenzio, who turns to Tom as a mentor in his budding passion for writing poetry. That’s the plot, but the plot is the least of the novel.
Nose to the ground, squat on its haunches, Riche’s car is blister red, bright with sleek aluminum strips, swollen here and there in its tapering length with triumphant attachments, swiveling mirrors, trim antennae, delicate bumpers, and terraced with glass that reflects and multiplies in its windshields and side windows every passing jazz-juiced hipster crossing Avenue A against the gun-metal blue of the cloud-clotted sky.
Weir is really brilliant in his imagery and his character writing, with descriptions that take your breath away in their depth and beauty. Even when he describes the end of Zack’s life, when Zack is emaciated and out of control of his body and Tom is horrified by the physical reality of the indignities of the dying, his love for his friends shine through. We spend the novel watching Tom watch his friends, and the predominant emotion is always love.
She’s sitting on the bar stool near the door, twisting her slender Audrey Hepburn neck to see what’s playing above her on the TV screen. Her pale arms are naked to the shoulder, bent at the elbows and balancing her face, her hands together palm to palm beside her cheek, the first two fingers of her right hand stretching out to hold a cigarette. Its smoke turns colors as it moves through overlapping shafts of bar light and TV light and rings her black hair like a corona.
Half meditation on American masculinity and half meditation on what it is to love — your best friend, your student, the city that you live in, your dying friend — What I Did Wrong is full of food for thought. Tom frequently asks what it means to be a man attracted to men, to be both the desirer and the object of desire, while mourning the devastation that the AIDS epidemic of the late 80s brought to his community and indulging in no small amount of survivor guilt. At the same time, he puts American masculinity under the knife, using his identity as a gay man — in his iteration, this is somewhere between male and female — to critique it.
Because how much does a man have in his life? You can’t invent the wheel. That’s been done. Prometheus took care of fire. And women are better at everything else: plans and provisions, legal precedents, corporate accounts,. Foreplay. Women connect. Men are selfish dreamers, in the john with their Walkmans spinning Radiohead and counting all the geniuses they can’t become: Homer, Plato, Jesus, Gandhi, Lester Young, Malcolm X, Frank Purdue.
And yet, while the novel’s famous phrase is that “America is a place where everyone has a bad relationship with a man,” Weir’s critique of masculinity is as nuanced as his character portraits — it is observation, beautifully described, and an attempt to understand. And through it all is the love that binds his characters together.
“Yes, zoom!” Kerouac says, and we’re on the Belt Parkway. A belt is a fist in the arm, a shot of booze, a part of your car. We cross the border into Brooklyn, where the ground is flat and sandy near Starrett City and the highway changes names from Shore Parkway to Leif Ericson Drive. The Verazanno Narros Bridge glides into place like a zipper joining oiled waves, and Manhattan is behind it. “There it is,” Richie says, “there it motherfucking is!”
The end of What I Did Wrong came too soon for me — I wanted to keep reading the lush language that brought my city and its characters so clearly to life. There’s a reason why artists congregate here — Weir is certainly one of them.
- Publisher: Viking Adult
- Publish Date: March 23, 2006
- Hardcover: 272 pages
- ISBN: 0670034843
- Language: English
- Rating: 4 of 5 stars