Last Watch of the Night

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After his intensely candid autobiography, BECOMING A MAN: HALF A LIFE STORY, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1992, Paul Monette continued to mine this personal vein. In the eleven essays collected here he registers his responses to a variety of subjects, in the alternately angry and lyrical tone that have come to characterize his writing since AIDS turned his life upside down in the mid-1980’s.

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The book begins with a loving portrait of his dog Puck—the “noble beast” who saw the writer through the devastating loss of friends, lovers, partners—and moves to a more complicated and somewhat less sentimental account of “Gert” Macy, stage manager and general factotum of Katherine Cornell’s theatrical company and member of her offstage lesbian coterie. Having met this richly eccentric woman while teaching at an East Coast prep school, Monette built and maintained the relationship over the years until her death in 1983, prizing both Gert’s shrewd literary judgment and her inexhaustible store and anecdotes about the colorful mid-century characters she lived among—Talullah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, the Algonquin wits. It is a finely etched tribute to an earlier generation of gay artists.

In other essays Monette weighs in, waspishly, on being covered by the press once the success of BORROWED TIME: AN AIDS MEMOIR (1988) had made him a reluctant poster boy for the disease and nationally recognized spokesman for gay rights. Other essays focus on the simple pleasures of sleep (now largely denied him); the peculiar experience of visiting his future grave site at Forest Lawn; the haunting task of sorting through “mortal things”—books, letters, souvenirs, the accumulations of a life approaching an untimely end.

The centerpiece of the collection, however, is Monette’s scathing speech delivered at the Library of Congress to celebrate National Book Week. “The Politics of Silence” is his blistering attack on censorship, on those in power who would try to erase history, to subvert the First Amendment, to silence the truth. He argues passionately that in a time of fiercely contesting ideologies, artist must be extraordinarily vigilant: they must forego the luxury of an aesthetic distance for a more direct political activism. For Monette, the first step in political positioning is, for gay or lesbian writers, to come out. There is no other way to fight the campaigns of hatred and bigotry, to explode the cartoonish notions of homosexuality than to present to the world the varied faces of proud and productive gay and lesbian citizens. It is strong stuff, and a fitting focal point for a collection that is always provoking, often moving, never less than honest in its desire to bear witness to the realities of contemporary gay experience.

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