Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, by Paul Monette
A fascinating story of one man’s half-a-life, articulately written, and unapologetically candid.
Book description: Paul Monette grew up all-American, Catholic, overachieving . . . and closeted. As a child of the 1950s, a time when a kid suspected of being a “homo” would routinely be beaten up, Monette kept his secret throughout his adolescence. He wrestled with his sexuality for the first thirty years of his life, priding himself on his ability to “pass” for straight. The story of his journey to adulthood and to self-acceptance with grace and honesty, this intimate portrait of a young man’s struggle with his own desires is witty, humorous, and deeply felt.
About the author: In novels, poetry, and a memoir, Paul Monette wrote about gay men striving to fashion personal identities and, later, coping with the loss of a lover to AIDS.
Monette was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1945. He was educated at prestigious schools in New England: Phillips Andover Academy and Yale University, where he received his B.A. in 1967. He began his prolific writing career soon after graduating from Yale. For eight years, he wrote poetry exclusively.
After coming out in his late twenties, he met Roger Horwitz, who was to be his lover for over twenty years. Also during his late twenties, he grew disillusioned with poetry and shifted his interest to the novel, not to return to poetry until the 1980s.
In 1977, Monette and Horwitz moved to Los Angeles. Once in Hollywood, Monette wrote a number of screenplays that, though never produced, provided him the means to be a writer. Monette published four novels between 1978 and 1982. These novels were enormously successful and established his career as a writer of popular fiction. He also wrote several novelizations of films.
Monette’s life changed dramatically when Roger Horwitz was diagnosed with AIDS in the early 1980s. After Horwitz’s death in 1986, Monette wrote extensively about the years of their battles with AIDS (Borrowed Time, 1988) and how he himself coped with losing a lover to AIDS (Love Alone, 1988). These works are two of the most powerful accounts written about AIDS thus far.
Their publication catapulted Monette into the national arena as a spokesperson for AIDS. Along with fellow writer Larry Kramer, he emerged as one of the most familiar and outspoken AIDS activists of our time. Since very few out gay men have had the opportunity to address national issues in mainstream venues at any previous time in U.S. history, Monette’s high-visibility profile was one of his most significant achievements. He went on to write two important novels about AIDS, Afterlife (1990) and Halfway Home (1991). He himself died of AIDS-related complications in 1995.
Review by Gerry Burnie
I was in the mood for a gay non-fiction story this week, and so I went looking. One would think that with all that is currently happening, there would be a dearth of non-fiction stories, but no. However, I did come across Paul Monette’s perennial Becoming a Man: Half a Life [Open Road Media, March 25, 2014]. It is a re-release of an earlier 1992 version, but since it is set in the 1950s and 60s—and biographical—it is still a relevant read.
Almost all gay men can relate to Monette’s story, as witness the number of reviews (the majority by men) that start out: “I could identify with so much of Monette’s feelings…” or “Coming of age in the fifties, Paul Monette lived a life that, in a sense, paralleled my own as I too am a child of the fifties.”
To these reminiscences I can add my own, for I too came out in the 1950s. Moreover, I too lucked out by having an older, well-established and highly-regarded man take me under his wing, to teach me that if you aim for the chimney pots you will reach the window sills, but if you aim for the stars you will reach the chimney pots.
I must say, however, that my life was not quite so unapologetically dramatic as Monette’s. Yes, like Monette, I instinctively realized that I had an attraction to men before I knew what sex was about, and yes, I quickly learned it was wrong; but only because the Church and my mother said so.
I also learned to keep it to myself at high school, and I was sometimes teased on account of ‘being different,’ but it never got worse than that. In fact, I was more likely to quietly sought out than bullied.
Nonetheless, I do parallel him again as soon as I got out into the working world, where keeping your mouth shut about your sexuality was part of keeping your job. Likewise, ‘playin la game’ (i.e. dating, and living the straight life) was expected—not so much for yourself as others.
Monette is brutally candid when it comes to this aspect, as well as other aspects of his life. Nothing, including an incident of pedophilia, is held back; however, not once did I get the impression he was looking for forgiveness or sensationalism. It was just as it had happened with nothing held back.
One aspect that I could have been happy with a little less of was his self-analysis; particularly of his younger years. Perhaps this is because I try to never analyze myself at any stage, and in this regard I think he should have stuck more to the facts. After all, many of the things he dwelt on carried their own explanation.
This is a fascinating story of one man’s life (half life), articulately written, and unapologetically candid. Recommended, four bees.
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