The best personal essays allow a momentary glimpse of the writer’s vulnerability and reveal facets of the writer’s personality that they otherwise shroud in secrecy. Yet, for these essays to work, their words and phrases must dance with a lithesome rhythm that carries readers along to a climactic revelatory moment. The essays collected in Evan James’ I’ve Been Wrong Before dazzle with such moments and language.
The ragged ways we fall in and out of relationships are at the center of these mostly already published essays, as James ponders the complexities of love, lust, sexuality and the permanence of longing against the backdrop of his world travels. Along the way, he often acts indecisively as he moves into a one-night stand or tentatively as he enters relationships that might last a little longer. Standing outside a bar in Chicago and looking for the Texan he has just met but who seems to have vanished into the night, James declares, “My mind was a church window through which someone had thrown a jagged rock, a broken scene of worship,” after being shattered by the possibility of love. In Barcelona, James meets Sergio, falling into a passionate relationship with him. Entranced by the possibilities of a future with Sergio and a life in Spain, he decides to drop out of college and remain; his resolve wavers, however, and on the flight home he “calls himself names all the way back.”
As he’s raking the soil in the family garden, he thinks about everything he’s missing out on while making a life for himself mopping up tiles in a bathhouse. James describes his coming out to his mother in a reflection on the movie Class Act in the essay “One Hell of a Homie” and realizes gleefully, “I felt giddy and villainous; now that I knew I could make people cry by coming out, I couldn’t wait to do it again.”
With spellbinding radiance, I’ve Been Wrong Before illumines the corners of James’ life and loves and captures a man in search of, and discovering, words that describe the jagged, sometimes ineffable paths he’s traversed in his life.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Evan James and seven other new and emerging memoirists.