From an early age, Tom was always considered one of the sissy boys;
constantly pushed around and punched by the schoolyard bullies for being effeminate, he knew he'd never be able to deliver up the masculine ideal. Damaged by his own natural inclinations, he grows older thinking it was he
who did wrong.
Now forty-two and teaching English literature in Queens to a ragtag collection of undergraduates, Tom still laments the loss of his best friend, Zack, who died from AIDS six years ago. When Tom meets Justin, the young "boy poet," he realizes
that he is finally able to let someone get inside him again, "past the blood brain barrier."
Although Justin is in fact one of his students, Tom throws caution to the wind, letting his feelings run away from him, attracted to Justin's broad shoulders and his penchant for literature and writing poetry. The encounter also dredges up long-forgotten memories of the past, proving that reminiscence and recollection is indeed a powerful force.
When Tom meets with his old school friend Ritchie, he remembers how the older man protected him from the worst of the harassment. Ritchie was Tom's rock, the only person who took the time to address Tom's particular dilemma – how does one become more of a man while growing up in such a mannish and truculent world?
Of course, life never works out the way you want it to. Tom grows older, moves to New York, and encounters
the city with its glittering towers, its hard, gold light, and its promises that life consists primarily of losing things. Here he meets Zack, his first "raging angry queer." But this is the early
'80s, the age of AIDS, and Tom has no choice but to watch Zak being eaten away by this terrible disease.
What I Did Wrong is all about growing up as an outsider in a world where the rules of manliness are so heavily delineated. Constantly vexed by the riddle of masculinity – in both the gay and straight worlds - the only way Tom can find peace and quell his middle-aged rage is by coming to terms with his tormented past, and perhaps put the manly ghosts of his childhood to rest.
In truly beautiful prose, author John Weir takes us through thirty years of Tom's life, peppering the narrative with references to pop culture, art, history and the great men and women of literature.
Tom does indeed forge a new life for himself in New York, however much of a struggle it may be, and he ultimately survives by putting his trust in beauty and art and the existence of the self. It is a life that is a mixture of pain, tragedy, and the always-present romantic anticipation that is often frantic with desire, the ineffable yearning to connect with someone.