Celebrating Paul Monette

Paul Monette as a guest on Geraldo,

April 19, 1990. 


I had never heard of him. One day in the first half of 2023, I was watching a program that came up on my YouTube feed as something I might be interested in. It was a Geraldo Rivera show from 1990, discussing the AIDS crisis. And there was this one guy whom I found terribly compelling. He was dignified, handsome, smart, and made his anger about government inaction known without being shrill or aggressive about it. (Larry Kramer was on the same program, and made quite a contrast.) This fellow’s name was Paul Monette, and he was a writer, apparently. I looked him up on Wikipedia and discovered he had written a lot back in the day, and won big prizes, before dying of AIDS in 1995. A Libra, like me. I made a mental note to look out for books by him.

            And then, in May, I was in the legendary Gay’s the Word bookshop in London, poring over the books in the second-hand section, and there was one by Paul Monette. So I picked it up, The guy at the cash, who chatted with me about all my five purchases, didn’t seem to have heard of Monette either.

            The book is called Last Watch of the Night, and it’s a series of essays Monette wrote in the early 1990s, when he was very ill. Inevitably, the overarching theme is death. There’s an essay on Monette’s dog Puck, who was around for the deaths of two of Monette’s partners and is now there for Monette’s own swan song. There’s an essay on Monette’s strained relationship (that’s an understatement) with organized religion, and a terribly poignant one about him and his partner going to the April 1993 March on Washington for LGBT rights (Larry Kramer pops up again), which they ended up watching on TV in their hotel room because Monette was so ill. And there are some essays that tackle death directly: one about final resting places, another about final travels. I loved the latter, which talks about how we never seem to have enough time in places we love, and often find ourselves just passing through somewhere that later becomes unforgettable in our memory.

            What struck me about these essays, apart from how learned and smart and beautifully written and wonderfully discursive they are, is Monette’s pride in being queer, the way he relishes being part of a community of marginalized people who had learned to stand tall. “The stillborn journey of my life took off at last, the moment I opened the closet door,” he writes. There’s a self-consciousness about his acknowledgement of his sexuality that is very much of its time, but it was refreshing to read this book and commune with the spirit of Monette’s generation (the one before mine), which was the first to emerge from the fullest darkness into the light, only to be slammed into by a plague. We owe it to that group of pioneers to remember them with gratitude and admiration, and I fear we don’t, or at least not enough. I suspect I’m not the only gay guy who reads a lot who had never heard of Paul Monette, but I think his name should be near the top of the reading list for us gay folk. I’m looking forward to reading his two earlier autobiographical works, Becoming a Man and Borrowed Time.

            Although Monette’s writing is full of anger, it’s a kind of righteous anger. One senses he’s angry because he needs to be, not because it’s his essential nature. On the contrary, his nature seems to be one of hope and loving-kindness. This is what came through in the Geraldo show, and it’s what I will retain from this book.

            Curiously, while his other two autobiographical books are still in print, this one doesn’t seem to be. Perhaps it’s too bleak. It is damned bleak. Could it be anything else? It is of its time and place. I did sometimes find the statements about the Church and government a bit shrill and exaggerated and harsh, but this visceral bitterness is not the lasting taste these essays left me with.

            Thank you, Paul Monette, for sharing so much of your life with us. I hope, somewhere, your lovely spirit of joy is brightening the night sky.


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