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Brute Force…Humanism

In One Person

by John Irving
Simon and Schuster, 425 pp., $28.00
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Jonathan Torgovnik/Contour by Getty Images
John Irving at his summer house in Pointe au Baril, Ontario, 2009

As a thought experiment, imagine a novel by an author you never heard of whose story comprises a coming-of-age tale in which the main character is educated in a Vermont prep school. Although his father may still be alive somewhere, the boy lives in the shadow of his handsome stepfather and his remote, disapproving mother. Various colorful relatives and townspeople circle in orbit around him. Fascinated—transfixed—by members of the school’s wrestling team, he later becomes a wrestler himself. In his adolescence the young man develops an interest in theater. He also discovers in himself a talent for writing. He is bisexual. After graduation, he travels to Europe and spends time in Vienna, where he works as a waiter and falls in love. A few years later, he becomes a successful novelist, celebrated everywhere.

The narrator’s voice, boisterous and affable, relies heavily on exclamation points and italicized words and will often return to certain ideas in case the reader didn’t get them the first time. Almost every character has a distinctive gesture by which he or she is identified, and portraiture is managed with broad brushstrokes. The prose tends to avoid ambiguity and solitary introspection and the dreaded verbs of consciousness: “‘thinking, wishing, hoping, wondering’—that shit!” Most thoughts and feelings the narrator has are either acted out or confided to a willing listener. Even the inevitable deathbed scenes are described with a certain writerly élan.

No such thought experiment would be possible for a great many contemporary adult readers or moviegoers, because John Irving has incorporated most of these elements in one work after another. Reading his new book, you watch the familiar routines to see what he’ll do with them this time. A quarter of the way through In One Person, Irving’s thirteenth novel, the narrator, Billy Abbott, points to a “valuable lesson” he has learned: “You must be careful when you stray from an acquired discipline…. Writing is such a discipline.” He then adds, “Good writing isn’t ‘relaxed.’”

These are the words of someone who has found an audience and is determined to keep it by staying within rigidly established conventions he himself has created. If good writing, for him, mustn’t be “relaxed,” then its forward momentum presumably depends on dramatic tension, created in these instances by thwarted desire. And if desires shape us, as Irving’s narrator believes, then self-knowledge cannot precede desire: “I know myself best by my persistent crushes on the wrong people, the way I was formed by how long I kept the secret of myself from the people I loved.” For Irving, such secrets may foster creativity; furtive desire goes underground and emerges as acting and fiction writing.

In One Person combines several genres. It is a novel about a bisexual man’s coming out grafted onto a coming-of-age story, grafted onto a portrait-of-the-artist, grafted onto a theater novel. The book is very entertaining and relies on verbal showmanship even when the events narrated are grim, a tonal incongruity characteristic of this author. The book’s theme, its fixed idea, is that actors and writers and bisexuals harbor many persons within one person.

The title is drawn from the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Richard II. In prison, Richard proclaims: “Thus play I in one person many people,/And none contented.” Sexual uncertainty spurs one on to dissembling, and in this sense acting and writing and sexual ambiguity are complementary. Closeted homosexuals and lesbians learn how to act and to fool others; writers learn how to perform (think of Dickens) and to project themselves into imaginary characters; actors embody transitory alien selves. The categories are all related and they can result in moments of satisfaction, except when they don’t. In Irving’s novel, triumphalism swerves into tragedy without anyone knowing how it got there.

The novel’s locale is the Irvingesque prep school Favorite River Academy, in First Sister, Vermont. In the first paragraph, the narrator, Billy Abbott, tells us that when he was in his teens the birth of his imagination and his wish to have sex with the town librarian arrived at the same time. Inspired by Great Expectations, Billy wants to be a writer; inspired by the librarian, Billy wants to be sexually active. A typical slippery tonal ambiguity moves the narrative quickly into a semicomic description of the narrator’s speech impediment: he can’t say “library” without slurring, or “penis” without lisping. Even now, in his late sixties, the narrator tells us that he pronounces the word as “penith.” This is the first sign that the author will fall back into comedy when real intimacy or terrible passions threaten to slow down the story’s forward momentum.

The town’s tall, imposing librarian, Alberta Frost, has broad shoulders, large hands, small breasts, and a kindly disposition toward our narrator, steering him to Dickens and the Brontë sisters, whose novels are a revelation for him. Standing in front of Alberta with a painful erection, the fifteen-year-old Billy tells her that he wants to be a writer. “Both the sex with Miss Frost and actually being a writer were unlikely, of course—but were they remotely possible?” Well, yes. Thick dramatic irony is the order of the day here. Billy cannot know what every alert reader will have already guessed, namely that Miss Frost is a transsexual and that she will initiate him into the mysteries of writing, acting, and the sex he yearns for. She may not be called Albertine, but she still has a good literary pedigree that includes Roberta Muldoon, the cross-dressing football player in Irving’s The World According to Garp.

Miss Frost, it turns out, has also, in her previous form as Albert Frost, been a champion wrestler, and the subject of wrestling leads to the novel’s central antagonist and love interest, Jacques Kittredge, Favorite River Academy’s best wrestler and a man of incomparable beauty. Billy is forced to love him from a safe distance:

He [Kittredge] had a hairless chest with absurdly well-defined pectoral muscles; those muscles were of an exaggerated, comic-book clarity. A thin line of dark- brown, almost-black hair ran from his navel to his pubes, and he had one of those cute penises—I have such a dread of that plural! His penis was inclined to curl against his right thigh, or it appeared to be preternaturally pointed to the right…. In the showers, at the gym, I lowered my eyes; for the most part, I wouldn’t look at him above his strong, hairy legs.

Note the weird, jokey tone at odds with the actual subject: the cartoon beauty comes out of a comic book; the narrator’s lisp intrudes as a quick exclamatory digression; and the physical description oscillates between the campy and the lovelorn. Despite its comic tone, the passage is about fear. Billy Abbott can’t really look at Kittredge, a godlike young man who is very butch and very abusive, without being punished for gazing into the god’s face. “Kittredge was brilliant at inflicting verbal pain, and he had the body to back up what he said; no one stood up to him.” Desire, fear, and flippancy comingle, as if Billy is studying his reactions instead of actually having them.

For the next two hundred pages, the novel traces its narrator’s discovery and exploration of the theater of everyday life, where most actors must play several parts, and where no one can be judged by appearances. The town’s amateur theatrical company is the school where he acquires this particular lesson, and its actors make up Billy’s family and loved ones. Everyone is an actor; everyone is putting on an act. In a production of The Tempest, Billy plays the sexually “mutable” Ariel; his beloved stepfather plays Prospero; Kittredge is the “ravishingly sexy” Ferdinand; and his friend Elaine (who is also in love with Kittredge) plays Miranda. Billy’s Grandpa Harry, who works in a sawmill, and who typically plays women, is Caliban, although the role appears to be a stretch:

Harry had never been onstage as a male anything; that Caliban was less than human was further “unresolved” by Grandpa Harry’s steadfastly female impersonation. Caliban may indeed have lusted after Miranda—we know the monster has tried to rape her!—but Harry Marshall, even when he was cast as a villain, was almost never unsympathetic onstage, nor was he ever entirely male.

Billy’s own masquerade involves pretending that he loves Elaine, when in fact he uses her as a beard. “Was I conscious of giving those Favorite River boys the impression that Elaine Hadley was my girlfriend? Was I acting, even then? Consciously or not, I was making Elaine Hadley my disguise.”

And so it goes, through productions of Twelfth Night, in which Kittredge plays Feste; King Lear, in which he plays Edgar; Hedda Gabler, in which Miss Frost plays Hedda; and Summer and Smoke, where Billy’s Aunt Muriel plays Alma, and Billy is her young man. These scenes are counterpointed with flash-forwards to Billy’s later life in Vienna, where he falls in love with a singer, Esmeralda (“esmeralda means ‘emerald’ in Spanish,” the narrator informs us, with his customary helpfulness).

We also learn of another of Bill’s classmates, Tom Atkins, who loves Bill and takes a trip to Europe with him after they have both graduated. Hints are dropped of the narrator’s growing fame as a novelist and of the many translations of his work, until Bill can withhold his pride no longer and begins quoting from his own books: “In increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us….” This passage, as it happens, is not exactly by Bill Abbott; it can be found on page 438 of John Irving’s Until I Find You. Emboldened, Bill Abbott continues to quote from another one of his novels, in a passage that begins: “Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t.” This sentence can be found on page 37 of Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Everyone, including our author, engages in a masquerade.

The masquerade includes Bill’s father, whom the narrator eventually finds in Madrid and who doesn’t bother to say “Hello” when he meets his son; Kittredge, who was not what he seemed; and Tom Atkins, who has gone on another masquerade, as a married man. By the end of the novel, the reader might assume that authenticity exists nowhere and that every self consists of a subcommittee of disputatious members, but Irving has one last character to spring on us, Gee, a transgender kid and a “work-in-progress” who is happily herself all the time. Having witnessed Tom Atkins’s heartbreaking death from AIDS, which seems to have been caused—in a manner never quite spelled out—by Tom’s double life, the narrator ends up in a kind of limbo, but still pleased with his ability to say, “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” Tellingly, he says so to the son of his “old nemesis and forbidden love.”

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