There is a scene near the end of John Irving’s latest novel, In One Person
in which a character who is a writer is confronted:
…I’ve read all your books and I know what you do—I mean, in your writing. You make all these sexual extremes seem normal—that is what you do. Like Gee, that girl, or whatever she is—or what she’s becoming. You create these characters who are so sexually ‘different,’ as you might call them—or ‘fucked up,’ which is what I would call them—and then you expect us to sympathize with them, or feel sorry for them, or something.
“Yes, that is more or less what I do,” I told him. (p 424)
And that is exactly what Irving does here. Irving maintains his fixation on sexuality in this one, and wrestling and New England prep schools, and May-December romance. So, if he is jogging for the umpteenth time down the same well-worn path, what is it that makes this one any different? The story is not one of a May-December entanglement, although that element is here. The book is about sexuality in a larger social, historical context.
William Abbot, in his late sixties, recalls his life, from his prep school days in the small town of First Sister, Vermont to his present, in the 21st century. Billy is bisexual and knows from an early age that he is attracted to both males and females. He struggles to find his place in the world, knowing that he differs from the usual in a significant way. Irving shows us his journey, his loves, triumphs, disappointments, what he discovers, what he seeks out, the discovery of self and of the world that is the core of any life journey worth telling.
In the same way that Cabot Cove of Murder, She Wrote
fame zoomed way above the statistical norm as a rather dodgy place in which to hold onto one's corporal existence, Little Sister, Vermont seems a statistically anomalous bastion of sexual diversity. William has a grandfather who cross dresses, genetic contributions from a gay relation, a cousin who is a lesbian, a best friend who is also bi, a classmate who walks on both sides of the street, another classmate who is gay, and a notable person in town who is transgender. Relying on that unimpeachable source, Wikipedia, we learn that as of April 2011, approximately 3.5% of American adults identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, while 0.3% are transgender. Of course, the number who are in fact LGB or T is probably higher, as there remain plenty of closets filled with members of those groups not yet able to identify themselves as such. Even so, and considering that the period in question is mostly early 1960s, you might want to check under First Sister's slip to see if maybe she might really be First Brother. Maybe there’s something in the water there, washing down from grandpa’s lumber mill. (This must
summon to mind Monty Python’s amazingly relevant Lumberjack Song- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mL7n5mEmXJo) In fact, there is so much non-standard sexuality in First Sister, Vt, that one might expect the sport Irving focuses on to shift from his favorite, wrestling, to something like Cross-Country, or Mixed doubles.
William’s tale is primarily that of his mid-to-late adolescence, his emergence as a bisexual, and coping with the complications and personal growth that result. In particular he copes with the ongoing problem of having crushes on the “wrong people.” I felt that this was the strongest part of the book. Enough time is dedicated to these early years to give us the richest texture, the deepest appreciation. This is not to say that William’s years beyond are thin, well, ok maybe a bit thin as he squeezes too many years into too few pages, but if his story were a Hershey kiss, the prep school years would be the lower two thirds.
For all that this is about William’s coming of age, he seemed pretty well formed by the time he appears as a young adolescent. He knew what he was, bisexual, and did not seem to suffer much real conflict about it. One might expect that he would feel two ways about it, but he didn’t, even though he grows into a more robust acceptance as he grows.
One mechanism Irving used to bolster his characterizations was to give William a speech problem that was probably tongue in cheek. William had great difficulty pronouncing words that related to problem areas in his life. “Penis,” for example, comes out “penith,” with the plural presenting an acute challenge. Later, another character is shown to have the same malady. This felt forced to me, a bit too cute.
Literature and theater permeate the story. The young William is led to the reading life by the town librarian, the alluring Miss Frost, and this opens the door for Irving to connect his characters to tales from great literature. There are two stage venues in First Sister, the school and the town both put on productions. This offers many opportunities for Irving to tell us about his characters by the roles they are assigned in the many plays, usually Shakespeare or Ibsen. Sadly, no musicals.
One strength, for me, was the presentation of a host of believable supporting characters. A cross-dressing grandparent was a charming, and supportive soul. William’s bff, Elaine, worked well. There are transgender characters portrayed as pillars of strength, very effectively. Also there are heterosexual characters who glow as supportive, caring sorts, William’s stepfather, Elaine’s mother, who offers counseling at the school, and even a gruff-seeming wrestling coach. And a scan of the history of public attitudes about acceptance of orientation diversity adds heft.
We see a variety of external pressures put on non-heterosexual people, but William does not really seem all that damaged by the prejudices as a teen, although he is
victimized by baseless fears as an adult. Others, however are
damaged. A good and supportive person loses a job as a result. Later, the AIDS epidemic takes many. Having to keep secrets does a fair bit of harm as well.
There was one particular scene that affected me oddly, made me anxious. I am not sure what to make of it. The scene in which an adult William returns from his home in Manhattan to Vermont for a funeral was particularly discomfiting. I have no particular affection for my “home town” and the thought of being dragged back there, even for a good cause, gives me a fear of being somehow pinned there forever. I feel that I escaped once, and might not if trapped again. Maybe like a djinn consigned again to a lamp from which he had been liberated. I am not sure why I reacted that way to William returning home. Maybe a part of this was the bitter taste of watching the residents of First Sister, Vermont being picked off by the author one by one. It seemed something other than sad. It seemed almost dismissive. As if a list of characters had been posted in the left column, living, and were being systematically dragged into the right hand column, deceased. The passings certainly make sense in the context of the story, but something that I obviously cannot adequately describe bugged me about it. I am not at all citing this as a flaw, just something I wish I could explain, but cannot.
I suppose I could go to the well one more time and say that I am ambivalent about In One Person
, but I am not. What Irving did for the delicate subject of abortion in Cider House Rules
, he does for sexual diversity here, humanizing a difficult subject, making us see the humanity of those too-often considered outsiders. Irving has written a moving story with believable characters, people we can care about and shows without telling.