The expression 'holding the man' is from Australian football, and although it certainly relates to John Caleo's enthusiasm for football, it relates far more to John and the narrator Tim Conigraves's gay relationship described in this autobiographical work set in Australia.
Holding the Man details Tim's school years from the early sixties, through the swiftly developing awareness of his homosexuality in his early teenage when, after a few gay experiments with others, he finds love and happiness with John. This is very much the story of a fifteen-year-old relationship which survives the insults of homophobic school 'friends' and peers as well as the embarrassment, disgust, incomprehension and religious hypocrisy of the parents.
The book is divided into three parts: 'A Head Full of Boys', which takes the reader up to the time when Tim and John leave school; 'Out in the World', the shortest section, in which the two lovers temporarily separate and they – particularly Tim – experiment with other male partners until they come together again and discover the terrifying reality of AIDS which is beginning to bring havoc to the gay community; and 'Soft Targets' charts their diagnosis as HIV-positive, the rapid decline in their health, and John's death after which the mourning Tim awaits his own premature demise.
Holding the Man isn't afraid to detail the joys of gay sex and nor is it squeamish about clinical detail of the disintegration of the body through AIDS-related illnesses. It is at times painful to read, but often moving and powerful in its description.