No-Accounts (3)

As I promised yesterday, here is the story behind the word “no-accounts”:

When I was growing up with my mother (separated from my father) and grandmother on a West Virginia farm, I was a hillbilly if there ever was one. I didn’t realize how countrified I was until my mother and father were reconciled and I moved to Oakland, California. My West Virginia twang attracted all manner of unwanted attention. People from kids my age to adults laughed at the way I talked.

My vocabulary set me aside as much as my pronunciation did. My speech was littered with references to “y’all,” “you’uns,” and “I reckon.” Among the terms I got from my grandmother was “no-account,” meaning a useless or irresponsible person, a no-good. So when it came time to write the story about a straight man taking care of a gay man dying of AIDS, I modeled the character of Alicia, the gay man’s mother, on my grandmother. Unaware that her son, Peter, is homosexual, when she learns that the daughter of Martin, Peter’s caretaker, is attending the George Washington University, she warns about “undesirable elements at GW . . . I don’t mean to be biased. It’s not that, but you do have to be careful nowadays . . . All those foreign students. Arabs, and Iranians, and God knows what. And the blacks, for heaven’s sake. And those gays . . . those people don’t live by the same rules as folks like us. They just don’t, now.”

Peter, in his despondency, tells Martin that both he and Martin are what his mother would call “no-accounts,” good-for-nothings, useless creatures. Grieving over his own wasted life, soon to be over, Peter yearns to redeem himself. Much of the book is devoted to his struggle.

Hence the book’s title. Both Peter and Martin do find ways to overcome their “no-account” status. Toward the end, when Peter’s death is imminent, he tells Martin, “We’re not no-accounts any more. We’re men now.”

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