Don’t misunderstand me. I liked John Weir’s What I Did Wrong. It’s well written and the characters are human and endearing – the pages certainly kept turning. But it felt as though there was one ingredient missing, which would have made it a novel I loved.
What I Did Wrong is queer New York, put to the page after the highs and lows of the eighties and nineties. It follows Tom, a middle-aged English professor who’s carved out his own unique rut of routine in New York City. Oh, and he’s gay. His sexuality is at once taken completely for granted and explored intimately, which is Weir’s finest hour in the novel. We find him at the fulcrum of a host of friends and lovers (or would-be lovers) – there’s Zack, the friend and sparring partner who died six years ago to AIDS and still informs many of Tom’s daily decisions; Ava, the woman warrior with whom Tom has hilariously straight sex (one of the funniest scenes in the novel); Richie, his adolescent best friend who periodically swings back into Tom’s life to cause confusion; and Justin, his nubile young student and crush. Everyone around Tom has more attitude and definition than Tom himself – Weir uses his main character like a sponge to mop around the corners of Zack’s ironic outbursts, Justin’s mumbled sexual ambiguity, Richie’s bravado.
Ava and Tom nursed Zack through the last days of his life, and Tom is still angry with his friend for dying. The triangle – and Zack as its weakest side - was delicately funny and at the same time harsh, Weir writing about the maddening disease as accurately as I’ve seen it done. Tom’s lifelong crush on his best friend Richie was fleshed out with flashbacks to their misspent youth together, and in seeing how Richie dealt with and understood Tom’s gayness with surprising grace (the scene where he teaches Tom to shoot hoops so that no one will pick on him for it strikes a beautiful chord) goes a long way to showing, subtly, the humanity of Richie’s fast-talking, macho persona. Again, no problems there. And Tom’s agonizing, novel-long adulation of Justin, his young misguided pupil, is culminated too early: it's a heartbreakingly awkward sexual scene between them coming not, as in a romantic novel, at the climax, but rather in the clunky middle. So well done there, as well.
So what’s my problem? Well, I wanted more. I wanted a little less of Tom’s constant reflection and a little more interaction between this fragile little circle of acquaintances. Don’t hate me when I say there were moments when I thought of Rent – not in its musical context, but merely in the sense of the delicate interpersonal threads. Here, in Weir’s book much as in Jonathan Larson’s play, there are a handful of people, all of whom relate to each other with some strong emotion – vitriol, jealousy, affection, obsession. And they’re all thrown at each other whether they like it or not. But Weir only lets this happen as dramatically as the course of one evening. I wanted more. I wanted more wrinkles in the folds between such well-written characters.
I don’t usually find myself wishing a writer had literally cut one scene and added more of another. I usually take a novel at whole face value and if a writer can’t adequately support his characters and develop them to the point that makes them unforgettable, I dislike the book. But Weir made his people unforgettable – even bumbling, questioning Tom has a passion for the city and for his people (if sometimes from afar) that resonates. I just wish he’d taken the time to throw these volatile little atoms at each other with a little more force, so that we could see what really goes wrong.