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Brute Force…Humanism

baxter_2-071212.jpg
Gianni Dagli Orti/Art Archive/Art Resource
Narcissus at the pool; Pompeiian fresco

In One Person is a page-turner, as befits the product of a novelist who in the afterword to Last Night in Twisted River jokes that for some readers, he is a dinosaur—that is, a writer who depends on plot. For such readers, Irving knows that he creates literary anachronisms, “the long, plotted novel,” and, speaking for his critics, Irving imagines them thinking that plot itself is “a long-dead animal I had dragged to the dinner table.” In that essay, Irving expands on this idea in a most interesting way to note that the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (“the best first chapter in an English novel”) depends on an unforgivable action: Michael Henchard’s sale of his wife and daughter to a sailor.

Accordingly, In One Person contains a series of unforgivable actions essential to the plot, nearly all of which are inspired by an irrational hatred of homosexuals. Irving is right about the unforgivable as a source of drama, and he understands that ambition often fosters the unforgivable. Those who are subject to unforgivable hatred react first with fear, then with role-playing and disguises. “Indeed, I saw more than obvious displeasure and condemnation in the faces of our townfolk,” Bill Abbott says. “I saw more than derision, worse than meanness. I saw hatred in a few of those faces.”

In speaking for tolerance and acceptance and against such hatred, this novel is on the side of the angels, and the various plots keep on ticking like an ancient clock that still manages to tell time accurately. “Fullness of heart,” a quality Irving has praised in Dickens, is one of its many virtues, and the reader is swept along by the histories it tells. The book is rhetorically openhearted and entertainingly outgoing and sincere. All the scenes with AIDS patients yank at the heart, and the reader is likely to end the book shaken by the passions on display and by the persistence of role-playing and closets in which fugitives must hide. The innocent suffer, and malignity thrives, but not forever. Lively stories about the necessity for tolerance, such as this one, are hard to resist.

But the pitfalls of a novel constructed largely through plot are also on display: the characters and their construction here are schematic, as if written to and for a thesis that requires them to be dropped into slots. We are repeatedly clobbered by revelations that everybody is somebody else, so that the final revelation about the beautifully muscled and godlike Kittredge turns out to be no surprise at all. To misuse a word from psychoanalysis, the characterizations that Irving employs are overdetermined, with the result that the events of the story collaborate with the intentions of the author. You can see certain turns of the plot coming from twenty pages away—or farther, from below the horizon. At no juncture does anything happen that conflicts with the general themes; every scene feels like an exemplum designed for an uplifting book club discussion in which there will be few arguments.

As if to underscore that his characters labor under the weight of repression, Irving has given several of them, both men and women, the traits of hysteria. This gets tiresome. Tom Atkins, Bill Abbott’s lover, retches whenever Bill says “vagina” and vomits when Madame Bovary is read to him; Bill’s Aunt Muriel faints dead away when someone uses the phrase “sexual strength,” and she faints again when the same person says “sexual presence”; Emily Atkins, Tom Atkins’s daughter, hates men and screams whenever she sees them, and of course the narrator cannot overcome his lisp when he pronounces the word “penis.”

The narrator is at pains to cite James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as one of his models—along with Great Expectations—but Baldwin’s novel about gay men, with its “stink of love” (a phrase from Giovanni’s Room repeatedly quoted in In One Person) has an urgency that In One Person cannot emulate. As Christopher Bram has observed in his fine recent history of gay fiction, Eminent Outlaws, the power of Baldwin’s novel derives in part from the protagonist’s inability to get out of the closet. “The plot has not become dated, sad to say, which is why the novel is still powerful for readers fifty years later.”1

Billy Abbott gets out of the closet, but his reactions to the momentous events of his life often feel weightless, flippant, secondhand, with a persistent tone of oppressive American cheerfulness. The prevalence of exclamation points and italics doesn’t help. “If I had hesitated to have my first actual girlfriend experience, a part of the reason was that I’d discovered I liked anal intercourse. (I liked it a lot!)” Two pages later: “I loved anal intercourse!” One feels the presence of a kind of public address system here and of the large (and presumably shocked) audience to whom the blindingly cheerful author is speaking. This mode pretty much removes any hint of introspection and inwardness. There is a fair amount of speechifying too, though all in a good cause. For long stretches, the good cause trumps the nudge-in-the-ribs prose. Finally a reader feels overpowered, taken down, by the narrator’s drive and his brute force humanism.

But the real trouble with the narrator of In One Person is not Billy’s lack of inwardness or his inappropriate cheerfulness. No law says that a first-person narrator needs to be somber and thoughtful. The problem is not really with the plot, either, because John Irving understands plotting as few other living American writers do. He has studied Dickens and Hardy, and he has given many readers much pleasure for many years by keeping things moving. In any case, you can’t always produce a psychological study by means of external action and dialogue, but you can try if your staging is expert, as Irving’s is. The trouble lies elsewhere.

The narrator of In One Person is a good noticer and compliments himself on his ability to notice everything. Quoting Auden, he notes that “before you could write anything, you had to notice something.” Irving has always been better at theatrical action and staging, on the externals, than he has been at psychological niceties, which is what happens when a writer stays at the surface. His novels are therefore beautifully suited to film adaptations. But in a story about erotic connections, you keep waiting for Bill Abbott to love somebody who is not a projection of his own needs. Someone whom Bill loves, the reader thinks, will eventually come into focus with force and clarity and contest Bill’s right to the microphone. Sooner or later the primary colors will give way to pastels.

But no such person ever arrives and stays on the scene. All Bill’s lovers remain in the shadows. Even Tom Atkins, who seems to be prepping for the major costarring role, ends up looking like a minor cartoon figure with his constant gagging and vomiting. Bill Abbott’s problem is not that he is bisexual and intermittently closeted; nor is his problem that of a repressive Puritanical heteronormative society; his problem is that he is a thoroughgoing narcissist, and his narcissism is never in the closet and never in doubt. Like any successful narcissist, he’s completely oblivious to his own narcissism, even when it’s pointed out to him:

“You know, you’re not just bisexual, Bill. You’re bi-everything!” Larry told me.
“What’s that suppose to mean?” I asked him.
“You’re a solo pilot, aren’t you, Bill?” Larry asked me. “You’re cruising solo—no copilot has any clout with you.” (I still have no idea what Larry meant.)

It’s hard to tell whether the author realizes what sort of narrator his protagonist is, but he must, because the secondary characters comment on the narrator’s creepy self-absorption. “It’s as if you’ve been shot in the heart, Bill, but you’re unaware of the hole or the loss of blood,” as Tom Atkins remarks. Any novel that concentrates on the narrator’s self, on its authentication, its coming-into-the-world, is bound to have a structural problem if no other character seems remotely as dynamic or powerful or interesting as the narrator is. The spotlight will stay fixed on the narrator, who also happens to be in the lighting booth. One other powerful character here, the beautiful godlike Kittredge, rivals Billy Abbott’s claim upon our attention, but Kittredge is whisked off the stage during the last one hundred pages, where he becomes a shadow among the other shadows and thus no threat to the attention we pay to Billy’s various triumphs.

Reading John Irving’s novels, I have often found myself swept away by the story and emotionally overwhelmed at the same time that I have felt an uneasiness bordering on rage. Irving doesn’t mind assaulting his reader with full-frontal sentiment until that reader finally gives up or capitulates. Reading his novels is like spending the night in a bed-and-breakfast filled with Victorian furniture and being mugged in the middle of the night. I finished The Cider House Rules—the orphan takes over the orphanage!—in tears, but also outraged by what had been done to me. The reader of one of these novels does not collaborate with the author so much as submit to him, a condition that creates polarized responses of resentment and tender sentiment. The combined effect reminds me of an anecdote told by that charming and neurotic memoirist, pianist, and film star Oscar Levant, about a movie he once saw in the company of the composer Virgil Thomson:

That same night we went to see a preview of the movie Young Man with a Horn, based on the legend of the late Bix Biederbecke. The story begins with a young man from Missouri. Virgil, too, was from rural Missouri, so the identification was immediate…. The boy’s role was played by Kirk Douglas and was a study of a musician in search of the indefinable…. When the lights went on after the cornball climax, Virgil’s face was streaming with tears. “What an awful picture,” he complained.2
  1. 1

    Christopher Bram, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Twelve Books, 2012), p. 50. 

  2. 2

    Oscar Levant, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (Putnam’s, 1965), p. 223. 

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