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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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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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