Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story

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Overview

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 ...

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Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story

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Overview

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.

Becoming a Man is a book about growing up gay, and about the tyranny and self hatred of the closet. One man's struggle, for half his life, to come out. It is also a book about America: from the starchy halls of privilege at Andover and Yale to the golden states of California.

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Editorial Reviews

David Ebershoff
"Monette’s interior life, his ghosts, his turmoil, his final peace — in Becoming a Man, they have become our literature."
--David Ebershoff
“Monette’s interior life, his ghosts, his turmoil, his final peace -- in Becoming a Man, they have become our literature.”
—David Ebershoff
“Monette’s interior life, his ghosts, his turmoil, his final peace — in Becoming a Man, they have become our literature.”
L. A. Weekly
“One of the most complex, moral, personal, and political books to have been written about gay life.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Everyone can learn something about courage and self-discovery from Becoming a Man.”
L.A. Weekly
"One of the most complex, moral, personal, and political books to have been written about gay life."
San Francisco Chronicle
“Everyone can learn something about courage and self-discovery from Becoming a Man.”
L. A. Weekly
“One of the most complex, moral, personal, and political books to have been written about gay life.”
LA Weekly
One of the most most complex, moral, personal, and political books to have been written about gay life.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060595647
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/25/2004
  • Series: Perennial Classics Series
  • Pages: 278
  • Sales rank: 799,334
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Monette (1945-1995) is the author of many books, including seven novels, four volumes of poetry, and several highly praised nonfiction works, such as Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. In 1992, he received the National Book Award for Becoming a Man. He died of AIDS complications in 1995.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Everybody else had a childhood, for one thing-where they were coaxed and coached and taught all the shorthand. Or that's how it always seemed to me, eavesdropping my way through twenty-five years, filling in the stories of straight men's lives. First they had their shining boyhood, which made them strong and psyched them up for the leap across the chasm to adolescence, where the real rites of manhood began. I grilled them about it whenever I could, slipping the casual question in while I did their Latin homework for them, sprawled on the lawn at Andover under the reeling elms.

And every year they leaped further ahead, leaving me in the dust with all my doors closed, and each with a new and better deadbolt. Until I was twenty-five, I was the only man I knew who had no story at all. I'd long since accepted the fact that nothing had ever happened to me and nothing ever would. That's how the closet feels, once you've made your nest in it and learned to call it home. Self-pity becomes your oxygen.

I speak for no one else here, if only because I don't want to saddle the women and men of my tribe with the lead weight of myself-hatred, the particular doorless room of my internal exile. Yet I've come to learn that all our stories add up to the same imprisonment. The self-delusion of uniqueness. The festering pretense that we are the same as they are. The gutting of all our passions till we are a bunch of eunuchs, our zones of pleasure in enemy hands. Most of all, the ventriloquism, the learning how to pass for straight. Such obedient slaves we make, with such very tidy rooms.

Forty-six now and dying by inches, I finally see how our livesalign atthe core, if not in the sorry details. I still shiver with akind of astonished delight when a gay brother or sister tells ofthat narrow escape from the coffin world of the closet. Yes yes yes,goes a voice in my head, it was just like that for me. When we laughtogether then and dance in the giddy circle of freedom, we arechildren for real at last, because we have finally grown up. Andevery time we dance, our enemies writhe like the Witch in Oz,melting, melting--the Nazi Popes and all their brocaded minions, the rat-brain politicians, the wacko fundamentalists andtheir Book of Lies.

We may not win in the end, of course. Genocide is still the national sport of straight men, especially in this century of nightmares. And death by AIDS is everywhere around me, seething through the streets of this broken land. Last September I buried another lover, Stephen Kolzak-- died of homophobia, murdered by barbaric priests and petty bureaucrats. So whether or not I was ever a child is a matter of very small moment. But every memoir now is a kind of manifesto, as we piece together the tale of the tribe. Our stories have died with us long enough. We mean to leave behind some map, some key, for the gay and lesbian people who follow--that they may not drown in the lies, in the hate that pools and foams like pus on the carcass of America.

I don't come from the past, I come from now, here in the cauldron of plague. When the doors to the camps were finally beaten down, the Jews of Europe no longer came from Poland and Holland and France. They came from Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But I will never understand how the straights could have let us die like this--year after year after year, collaborating by indifference--except by sifting through the evidence of my queer journey.

Why do they hate us? Why do they fear us? Why do they want us invisible?

I don't trust my own answers anymore. I'm too twisted up with rage, too hooked on the millennium. But I find myself combing the past these days, dreaming dreams without sleep, puzzling over my guys, the gay and the straight and the inbetween. Somewhere in there is a horror of love, and to try to kill the beast in them, they take it out on us. Which is not to say I don't chastise myself for halving the world into us and them. I know that the good guys aren't all gay, or the bad all straight. That is what I am sifting for, to know what a man is finally, no matter the tribe or gender.

Put it this way. A month after Stevie died, running from grief, I drove three days through Normandy. In the crystalline October light I walked the beach at Omaha, scoped the landing from a German bunker, then headed up the pasture bluff to the white field of American crosses. American soil in fact, this ocean graveyard, unpolluted even by the SS visit of Reagan in '84, who couldn't tell the difference between the dead here and the dead at Bitburg. You can't do Normandy without D-Day. After Omaha, the carnage and heroism shimmer across the pastureland, ghosts of the soldiers who freed the world of evil for a while.

Two days later I fetched up in Caen, where they've built a Museum of Peace on the site of an eighty-day battle fought by three million men. Newsreel footage and camp uniforms, ration books, code breakers, yellow star and pink triangle. You watch it all happen like a slow bomb, from the end of World War I, the dementia of power, till the smithereens are in smithereens. You walk numbly from year to year, country to country, helpless as a Jew or a Gypsy or a queer. Becoming a Man. Copyright © by Paul Monette. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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First Chapter

Becoming a Man
Half a Life Story

Chapter One

Everybody else had a childhood, for one thing-where they were coaxed and coached and taught all the shorthand. Or that's how it always seemed to me, eavesdropping my way through twenty-five years, filling in the stories of straight men's lives. First they had their shining boyhood, which made them strong and psyched them up for the leap across the chasm to adolescence, where the real rites of manhood began. I grilled them about it whenever I could, slipping the casual question in while I did their Latin homework for them, sprawled on the lawn at Andover under the reeling elms.

And every year they leaped further ahead, leaving me in the dust with all my doors closed, and each with a new and better deadbolt. Until I was twenty-five, I was the only man I knew who had no story at all. I'd long since accepted the fact that nothing had ever happened to me and nothing ever would. That's how the closet feels, once you've made your nest in it and learned to call it home. Self-pity becomes your oxygen.

I speak for no one else here, if only because I don't want to saddle the women and men of my tribe with the lead weight of myself-hatred, the particular doorless room of my internal exile. Yet I've come to learn that all our stories add up to the same imprisonment. The self-delusion of uniqueness. The festering pretense that we are the same as they are. The gutting of all our passions till we are a bunch of eunuchs, our zones of pleasure in enemy hands. Most of all, the ventriloquism, the learning how to pass for straight. Such obedient slaves we make, with such very tidy rooms.

Forty-six now and dying by inches, I finally see how our livesalign at the core, if not in the sorry details. I still shiver with akind of astonished delight when a gay brother or sister tells ofthat narrow escape from the coffin world of the closet. Yes yes yes,goes a voice in my head, it was just like that for me. When we laughtogether then and dance in the giddy circle of freedom, we arechildren for real at last, because we have finally grown up. Andevery time we dance, our enemies writhe like the Witch in Oz,melting, melting--the Nazi Popes and all their brocaded minions, the rat-brain politicians, the wacko fundamentalists andtheir Book of Lies.

We may not win in the end, of course. Genocide is still the national sport of straight men, especially in this century of nightmares. And death by AIDS is everywhere around me, seething through the streets of this broken land. Last September I buried another lover, Stephen Kolzak-- died of homophobia, murdered by barbaric priests and petty bureaucrats. So whether or not I was ever a child is a matter of very small moment. But every memoir now is a kind of manifesto, as we piece together the tale of the tribe. Our stories have died with us long enough. We mean to leave behind some map, some key, for the gay and lesbian people who follow--that they may not drown in the lies, in the hate that pools and foams like pus on the carcass of America.

I don't come from the past, I come from now, here in the cauldron of plague. When the doors to the camps were finally beaten down, the Jews of Europe no longer came from Poland and Holland and France. They came from Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But I will never understand how the straights could have let us die like this--year after year after year, collaborating by indifference--except by sifting through the evidence of my queer journey.

Why do they hate us? Why do they fear us? Why do they want us invisible?

I don't trust my own answers anymore. I'm too twisted up with rage, too hooked on the millennium. But I find myself combing the past these days, dreaming dreams without sleep, puzzling over my guys, the gay and the straight and the inbetween. Somewhere in there is a horror of love, and to try to kill the beast in them, they take it out on us. Which is not to say I don't chastise myself for halving the world into us and them. I know that the good guys aren't all gay, or the bad all straight. That is what I am sifting for, to know what a man is finally, no matter the tribe or gender.

Put it this way. A month after Stevie died, running from grief, I drove three days through Normandy. In the crystalline October light I walked the beach at Omaha, scoped the landing from a German bunker, then headed up the pasture bluff to the white field of American crosses. American soil in fact, this ocean graveyard, unpolluted even by the SS visit of Reagan in '84, who couldn't tell the difference between the dead here and the dead at Bitburg. You can't do Normandy without D-Day. After Omaha, the carnage and heroism shimmer across the pastureland, ghosts of the soldiers who freed the world of evil for a while.

Two days later I fetched up in Caen, where they've built a Museum of Peace on the site of an eighty-day battle fought by three million men. Newsreel footage and camp uniforms, ration books, code breakers, yellow star and pink triangle. You watch it all happen like a slow bomb, from the end of World War I, the dementia of power, till the smithereens are in smithereens. You walk numbly from year to year, country to country, helpless as a Jew or a Gypsy or a queer. Becoming a Man
Half a Life Story
. Copyright © by Paul Monette. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

In 1988, novelist and poet Paul Monette published the memoir, Borrowed Time. The chronicle of the last years in the life of his lover Roger Horwitz, the book was hailed as "tender … and lyrical" by The New York Times Book Review and "[a] searing, shattering, ultimately hope inspiring account of a great love story" by the San Francisco Examiner. With Becoming a Man, winner of the National Book Award, Monette turned to his own life for to explain what it means to male, gay, and an artist in America.

A child of the 1950s from a small New England town, "perfect Paul" earns straight A's and scholarships 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 -- "The thing I'd never even seen: two men in love and laughing." This brutally honest, witty, and humane merging of memoir and manifesto promises to become the definitive coming out story -- and a classic of the coming-of-age genre.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The young Paul Monette grows obsessed with collection and creating stories. Where does this impulse lie? Is it connected to his outcast-status, his homosexuality, or something less nameable?

  2. When first discovered experimenting with another boy, Paul says of his mother: "I think she just felt helpless, out of her depth." (p. 30) What do you think of Paul's mother's reaction to his budding homosexuality? Whatsort of role does she play in his boyhood, and what sort of influence does she provide, in absentia, during his adolescence and young adulthood?

  3. Becoming a Man was originally published in 1992. How has the views of organized religion toward homosexuality changed since then?

  4. Discuss the uses of acting, of masks ("I was practically hoarse from ventriloquism already." p. 55), of invisibility in the autobiography.

  5. Why does Paul Monette begin writing?

  6. How does politics influence Paul's story? Does its involvement (or lack thereof) seem believable to you? Are the pressures of coming out in today's political environment the same?

  7. "For when that longing gets its hooks in me, aching for so much lost time, I think I would have gladly given up being a writer if I could've been queer out loud." (p. 158) What longing does Paul speak of? And why is its power as great as art for Paul? Are both a ceding of control, or rather, are both the refuges of power in a world where one is rendered powerless?

  8. Furthermore, do you believe that Paul sees art as a way to avoid life?

  9. Does Paul's sexual coming-of-age seem outdated in any way?

  10. When embroiled with the student Greg at the Sutton Hill School, Paul thinks: "if you hate yourself as I did and think you're a worthless shit, then shit is all you deserve." Do you think Paul really thought of himself in this way? What are your opinions of the Greg affair in general?

About the Author

Paul Monette is the author of six novels, including Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll and Afterlife, three books of poetry, as well as the acclaimed Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. Becoming a Man is the recipient of the 1992 National Book Award. He died of AIDS complications in 1995.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2014

    Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story is a chronicle by Paul Monette

    Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story is a chronicle by Paul Monette of his early childhood to becoming an
     out gay man. The years of struggle to break free of self hate, confined in the closet on the journey to
     becoming authentic. This book is the early background on this important man, the closeted years,
     before his work that advanced gay civil rights. Any gay person born in the 50s will relate to the choices
     he made to survive a hostile world, a world that prevented you from being a happy successful gay person.
     With a bright mind, confidence and hiding his true self, he was able to achieve an education denied
     most young gay people. This book is a must read for all gay people, both old and young, to connect 
    with a common truth and to learn of this authentic man, who helped make the world for us a better place.
     “Go without hate, but not without rage, heal the world”, his words his truth.                        RSM_Bedford

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 2, 2014

    I wasnt too sure what to expect from this book but having gay fr

    I wasnt too sure what to expect from this book but having gay friends and knowing how they work as people helped me. What a wonderful surprise when I started reading it.
    What an amazing journey for someone to take from a childhood living in the closet but going through the motions as someone who is straight, feeling constantly of self hatred and detesting yourself,
    unable to come out of the closet because of ridicule by family members and your peers, feeling isolated and lonely and an outcast in a un normal world. My gay friend also experienced the same feelings and emotions and they too
    found it difficult through their childhood but when you become an adult everything changes and you can then declare to the world. I AM GAY, I AM NOT A STRAIGHT MAN. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 29, 2009

    Compelling & touching Memoir

    A intimate, heartbreaking account of a man coming of age in a time of torment and inner turmoil. An absorbing read and perspective. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2002

    A nice read

    I really identifued with the main character, Paul Monette. This book reminds me, in a way, of another book I read. They both have that some 'who am i' kind of feel to them.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2001

    To Become a Man...

    This book was suggested to me by a friend of mine to, as he put it, see life more clearly. When I started reading, the details of his life and all of the trials, tribulations and struggles Paul Monette went through resounded with me because I, too, had experienced all of them. This book made me realize that I wasn't the only person who struggled through these things, and eased my transition into a whole new world. If you feel that you are the only man out there who has gone through these trials and tribulations, this book will show you that you definitely are not.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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