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The book tells the story of the author and the love of his life, John Caleo, from the author’s early days in school in the very late 1960s through to the time of John’s untimely death, nearly three years before the author’s own, in the early 1990s. The book can be read on many levels: A gay man’s coming out story, a love story, a description of a particular time and place, a story of living through a time of plague, a story of loss, grieving, and death. The book artfully transcends its inherent gravity as the story unfolds, compelling the reader to continue on reading despite the knowledge and fear of what is ultimately coming.
One of the reasons for the book’s resonance is that the people it describes are all real, vividly described. I’ve been moved by other works of literature (and I do believe in time this book will be considered literature), but they have typically been works of the author’s imagination. As meaningful as Brokeback Mountain was, both as short story and film, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist didn’t actually exist. But Tim and John did live, were surrounded by friends and family, and contended with things that seem all too familiar to so many of us.
I didn’t know Tim and John, and yet I do know them. They were born only a bit more than half a decade before me, on a different continent on the other side of the world but in a society similar to mine. Tim’s descriptions of life growing up gay were riveting reading, being so very different and yet so much the same as my own. Throughout the story the mixture of the seemingly mundane with the far-reaching, such as John’s happiness in purchasing a fancy new can opener in the face of grim circumstances, made the people in the book seem very familiar.
On other forums some readers have expressed disappointment or frustration with the Australian slang used throughout the book. I think they are missing the point. The book’s characters are Australians, living in Australia. I think it’s odd for others to expect them to speak in any idiom other than their own, and it’s easy enough to search for the meaning of words, even slang words, online when context doesn’t supply enough clues for international readers. The language used is one of the elements of the book that reminds the reader that these are real people, living real lives, in a real time and place.
I feel a range of emotions toward Tim, the author. One of them is anger, because Tim’s desire for “more” outside of his relationship with John is implicated in their lives being cut short. I don’t mean to judge Tim. His feelings in this regard are hardly unique to him or to gay men, then or now; extra-marital relationships exist throughout society and no doubt will continue. But as I read Tim telling John of his desire to meet people outside their relationship and as I knew what was coming I wanted so badly to somehow leap through the pages and go back in time and urge him to stop and reconsider, to think about the immense value, the rarity and preciousness of what he already had with John. One of the things I find particularly interesting about my reaction is when I consider that the book is written from Tim’s point of view, by Tim himself. My feelings are the result of Tim’s own telling of the story; there is no access to the story from John’s point of view. I feel that Tim himself is eliciting my reaction.
Some reviewers in other forums have written that Tim wrote the book as an extended apology to John. Considering what I’ve written above, I find that a plausible interpretation. If it’s true, I can only think of how Tim must have found the weight of his responsibility toward John’s demise a truly crushing burden to bear, on top of everything else both of them were going through, and it makes me all the more sad that it had to be endured by these two men. I feel so incredibly bad for these human beings, caught simply unaware as the sea of their lives retreated and then came crashing back, inundating them. Besides the personal loss of them as individuals to their friends and family, the loss of the contributions they, and countless others in similar circumstances, would have made to the world is staggering to comprehend.
The last line of the book, after I translated it using a web translation service, caused me to burst into tears. This was embarrassing as I finished the book as I sat on a bus headed home from work. I will not repeat or translate the line here, because I don’t want to rob other readers of the impact of discovering its meaning themselves when they come to that point at the end of the story. But I will say it is one of the most moving last sentences of a book I’ve ever encountered, as it bridges the essence of the story with the author’s foreknowledge of his own time to come.
I do wish there were an account of Tim’s final months or weeks elsewhere. From what I’ve pieced together from sources on the web it would appear that Tim practically willed himself to live long enough to finish the story, dying the month after completing it and a few months before the book was published. I am hoping that when Tim died he was also surrounded by those who loved him. Although I did not and will not know either one of them in actual life, thanks to how their story is told I find myself in the odd position of feeling as though I know and love them both.
November 19, 1959 - October 18, 1994
May 30, 1960 - January 26, 1992
Although I did not have the privilege of meeting either of you in life, you are two of the people I’ve encountered whom I would like to honor by living well and true, and remembering.
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