A child of the 1950s from a small New England town, "perfect Paul" earns straight A's and shines in social and literary pursuits, all the while keeping a secret -- from himself and the rest of the world. Struggling to be, or at least to imitate, a straight man, through Ivy League halls of privilege and bohemian travels abroad, loveless intimacy and unrequited passion, Paul Monette was haunted, and finally saved, by a dream of "the thing I'd never even seen: two men in love and laughing." Searingly honest, witty, and humane, Becoming a Man is the definitive coming-out story in the classic coming-of-age genre.
Beneath that Yale- and Andover-educated genteel exterior is the heart of an enraged activist who, if he had a problem with admitting his homosexuality, certainly had fewer problems with hyperbole. He blithely claims within the first few pages of “Becoming a Man” that “genocide is still the national sport of straight men.” He goes on to clarify that Stephen Kolzak, one of his former lovers, “died of homophobia, murdered by barbaric priests and petty bureaucrats.” I would never be the first to suggest that the national response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in its initial years was rapid or proportionate to need, but Monette’s moralizing is certainly a momentous task in blame-shifting. One review, whose overall impression of the book was much less favorable than mine, nevertheless mentioned something very striking about the man who wrote it: he seems to consist of two different personalities, neither of which have reconciled themselves to one another.
Nor does he self-consciously explore his balkanized personality; he seems supremely unhappy in being unable to be open about his sexuality to most people, but does nothing to change this. And this repressed self sits right there, silently, next to the one that rails against America with clenched fist about committing “genocide” against those with HIV/AIDS. It’s a perplexing picture, but strikingly human one, a poignant one.
I’ve noted before in my reviews of memoirs that I don’t read many of them, and that I somehow have to be struck by the life of the author before I’ll pick one up. Monette was gay; Edmund White’s homosexuality and love of ideas were two big invitations for me as a much younger reader when I stumbled across “The Beautiful Room is Empty.” I found this book, my first experience reading Monette, honest and forthright in Monette’s “trying to give a true account of one’s self” – perhaps the hardest thing you can ever ask someone to do. Perhaps I’m grateful for his rage and his furor, discombobulated as it was. It allowed, decades on, for people like me to not have to re-wage the battles that he already fought.
Booklist said of this title, "Maybe one of the great American autobiographies....A book in which virtually every gay man will see himself; with which virtually every lesbian and bisexual will empathize; which will powerfully move the parents, siblings, and friends of gays...as witty as it is anguished and as full of understanding as of anger, this is Monette's best book."