It's open for debate which make preferable book club selections the books you're eager to read anyway or the riskier but possibly serendipitous unknowns you might never crack otherwise. John Irving's thirteenth novel falls into the can't-wait-to-read category for many, but that's only partly why I've selected it for this month's column. In One Person, an expansive, occasionally flamboyant tale of mutable, multifaceted sexuality, bias, and the AIDS crisis, is a far from perfect work of fiction. But my mission is to flag books that are not just captivating but are conversational lubricants and this new novel should certainly stimulate discussion.
Irving's most political book since The Cider-House Rules is narrated by a bisexual novelist named William Abbott, who finds it impossible to satisfy all his desires with a single gender, never mind just one person. Like Irving, Billy, as he's called, was born in March 1942 which means his life spans seismic changes in attitudes towards sex. He grows up in the anachronistically tolerant small town of First Sister, Vermont, hanging around the local amateur theatre in which his homophobic single mother is the prompter and his beloved grandfather specializes in cross-dressing roles. Billy doesn't remember his father, who left after his mother caught him kissing "someone else."
Billy's life changes when his mother marries the wonderful young drama teacher at the somewhat preciously named local all-boys' boarding school, Favorite River Academy. Richard Abbott not only adopts him but turns him on to reading and that's not all by taking him to the town library (previously off-limits, for reasons we later learn). There, Billy becomes smitten with marvelous Miss Frost, the, imperious, big-boned, small- breasted librarian. "We are formed by what we desire," he writes, realizing later that "this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination." His narrative tracks the evolution of both over more than 50 years.
Not surprising in a book about a novelist, the erotic charge first gets worked out through a reading list. Thirteen-year-old Billy's initial library request is for books about crushes "on the wrong people?dangerous crushes." Miss Frost starts him off with Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Tom Jones. Later, she steers "William," as only she calls him, to Great Expectations, Madame Bovary, and, finally, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room novels that are discussed in some depth. Meta- fiction alert: In One Person is, among other things, about the power of literature.
Another, less distinctive character is Billy's lifelong best friend, sometime lover, and fellow writer, Elaine Hadley, who shares his unhealthy obsession with cruel Jacques Kittredge, star of both wrestling and stage at the Academy. The mystery of what becomes of Kittredge after graduation is one of the novel's driving forces. Irving is famous for never starting a book until he knows where he's going; this time around, readers are likely to suss out several of his destinations before his narrator does.
Readers will also recognize many of Irving's pet themes: boys with absent, unknown fathers; angry single mothers; all-male New England prep schools; the influence of Shakespeare and Dickens; cross-dressing actors; and, of course, wrestling. (When Billy is taught a defensive move called a "duck- under," you know he's bound to use it eventually like the proverbial gun on a mantel.)
Lust, as in so many of Irving's novels, is punished with mutilation. (Remember the outrageous oral sex accident in The World According to Garp?) This time, it takes the especially horrendous form of AIDS which Irving stresses is as undeserved and unacceptable as homophobia and intolerance. Given the astonishing number of Billy's former lovers and friends who are stricken, he seems neither as terrified nor as depressed as one would think. He shows up at numerous deathbeds, but as in his numerous affairs, he's oddly detached and ready to move on. The unfortunate result is that the growing casualty list starts to feel like narrative expedience, a series of quick wrap-ups. Richard comments, "If you live long enough, Bill it's a world of epilogues." This evokes another memorable, apt Irving catchphrase: "In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases."
More than actual sex, there's lots of talk of the changing vocabulary of sex, which could make a rich starting point for discussion of shifting attitudes: "sissies," "effeminate cross-dressing boys," and a man who's "a little light in his loafers" are all performers, both on- and offstage. Billy flags how the terms "pitchers" and "catchers" morph into "tops" and "bottoms," while "transsexual" is replaced by "transgender." With his widening experience, he writes of "trannies," "intercrural sex" (between thighs, the trick no doubt pulled off in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly), and some funny interchanges about vaginas. Irving's narrator repeatedly underscores how his bisexuality renders him suspect to gay men, who think he's still got one foot in the closet, and to straight women, who worry he'll be doubly tempted to leave them, for either sex.
In One Person celebrates human variety with Irving's trademark narrative exuberance. I have to warn you, however, that all the exposition and scenery arranging in the jumpy opening chapters nearly exhausted my patience. Stick with it even through the overlong discussions of amateur and student productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen. Irving is building to a tragicomic exploration and impassioned defense of people with sexual differences ever-threatened, he feels, by the puritanical and intolerant. While gay and lesbian fiction has become more mainstream in recent decades, literature about male bisexuality is still relatively rare. By portraying his characters' polymorphous sexuality in a good-humored, unsensational light, Irving tones down the deliberately outlandish freakishness that colors most of his books. The takeaway here is Miss Frost's admonition to Billy, which he later throws back at a hostile young man: "My dear boy, please don't put a label on me don't make me a category before you get to know me!"
If you're interested in further reading, Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out, edited by Loraine Hutchins and Lani Ka'ahumanu, is a rich anthology of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by bisexual men and women, still considered vital more than 20 years after its publication. Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex is an extraordinary novel about both national and sexual identity, as much about emigrating between countries as between genders. Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography, about a gender-shifting character whose life spans centuries, is based in part on Woolf's lover, Vita Sackville-West, and has become a classic of gender studies. For literature about AIDS, Tony Kushner's powerful play Angels in America deals with the emotional and spiritual ravages of this dreadful plague on characters that include closeted gay men and their lovers and families. Finally, one of my favorite books on any subject is Michael Cunningham's gorgeous novel The Hours, in which a gay poet's heartbreaking death is refracted through Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. All of these works, like In One Person, confront what novelists have been grappling with since Samuel Richardson's Clarissa: the centrality of desire in human experience. Or, as Irving's narrator puts it, how "We are formed by what we desire."
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin
Read an Excerpt
I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination. We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.
I met Miss Frost in a library. I like libraries, though I have difficulty pronouncing the word—both the plural and the singular. It seems there are certain words I have considerable trouble pronouncing: nouns, for the most part—people, places, and things that have caused me preternatural excitement, irresolvable conflict, or utter panic. Well, that is the opinion of various voice teachers and speech therapists and psychiatrists who’ve treated me—alas, without success. In elementary school, I was held back a grade due to “severe speech impairments”—an overstatement. I’m now in my late sixties, almost seventy; I’ve ceased to be interested in the cause of my mispronunciations. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but fuck the etiology.)
I don’t even try to say the etiology word, but I can manage to struggle through a comprehensible mispronunciation of library or libraries—the botched word emerging as an unknown fruit. (“Liberry,” or “liberries,” I say—the way children do.)
It’s all the more ironic that my first library was undistinguished. This was the public library in the small town of First Sister, Vermont—a compact red-brick building on the same street where my grandparents lived. I lived in their house on River Street—until I was fifteen, when my mom remarried. My mother met my stepfather in a play.
The town’s amateur theatrical society was called the First Sister Players; for as far back as I can remember, I saw all the plays in our town’s little theater. My mom was the prompter—if you forgot your lines, she told you what to say. (It being an amateur theater, there were a lot of forgotten lines.) For years, I thought the prompter was one of the actors—someone mysteriously offstage, and not in costume, but a necessary contributor to the dialogue.
My stepfather was a new actor in the First Sister Players when my mother met him. He had come to town to teach at Favorite River Academy—the almost-prestigious private school, which was then all boys. For much of my young life (most certainly, by the time I was ten or eleven), I must have known that eventually, when I was “old enough,” I would go to the academy. There was a more modern and better-lit library at the prep school, but the public library in the town of First Sister was my first library, and the librarian there was my first librarian. (Incidentally, I’ve never had any trouble saying the librarian word.)
Needless to say, Miss Frost was a more memorable experience than the library. Inexcusably, it was long after meeting her that I learned her first name. Everyone called her Miss Frost, and she seemed to me to be my mom’s age—or a little younger—when I belatedly got my first library card and met her. My aunt, a most imperious person, had told me that Miss Frost “used to be very good-looking,” but it was impossible for me to imagine that Miss Frost could ever have been better-looking than she was when I met her—notwithstanding that, even as a kid, all I did was imagine things. My aunt claimed that the available men in the town used to fall all over themselves when they met Miss Frost. When one of them got up the nerve to introduce himself—to actually tell Miss Frost his name—the then-beautiful librarian would look at him coldly and icily say, “My name is Miss Frost. Never been married, never want to be.”
With that attitude, Miss Frost was still unmarried when I met her; inconceivably, to me, the available men in the town of First Sister had long stopped introducing themselves to her.
THE CRUCIAL DICKENS NOVEL
THE one that made me want to be a writer, or so I’m always saying—was Great Expectations. I’m sure I was fifteen, both when I first read it and when I first reread it. I know this was before I began to attend the academy, because I got the book from the First Sister town library—twice. I won’t forget the day I showed up at the library to take that book out a second time; I’d never wanted to reread an entire novel before.
Miss Frost gave me a penetrating look. At the time, I doubt I was as tall as her shoulders. “Miss Frost was once what they call ‘statuesque,’” my aunt had told me, as if even Miss Frost’s height and shape existed only in the past. (She was forever statuesque to me.)
Miss Frost was a woman with an erect posture and broad shoulders, though it was chiefly her small but pretty breasts that got my attention. In seeming contrast to her mannish size and obvious physical strength, Miss Frost’s breasts had a newly developed appearance—the improbable but budding look of a young girl’s. I couldn’t understand how it was possible for an older woman to have achieved this look, but surely her breasts had seized the imagination of every teenage boy who’d encountered her, or so I believed when I met her—when was it?—in 1955. Furthermore, you must understand that Miss Frost never dressed suggestively, at least not in the imposed silence of the forlorn First Sister Public Library; day or night, no matter the hour, there was scarcely anyone there.
I had overheard my imperious aunt say (to my mother): “Miss Frost is past an age where training bras suffice.” At thirteen, I’d taken this to mean that—in my judgmental aunt’s opinion—Miss Frost’s bras were all wrong for her breasts, or vice versa. I thought not! And the entire time I was internally agonizing over my and my aunt’s different fixations with Miss Frost’s breasts, the daunting librarian went on giving me the aforementioned penetrating look.
I’d met her at thirteen; at this intimidating moment, I was fifteen, but given the invasiveness of Miss Frost’s long, lingering stare, it felt like a two-year penetrating look to me. Finally she said, in regard to my wanting to read Great Expectations again, “You’ve already read this one, William.”
“Yes, I loved it,” I told her—this in lieu of blurting out, as I almost did, that I loved her. She was austerely formal—the first person to unfailingly address me as William. I was always called Bill, or Billy, by my family and friends.
I wanted to see Miss Frost wearing only her bra, which (in my interfering aunt’s view) offered insufficient restraint. Yet, in lieu of blurting out such an indiscretion as that, I said: “I want to reread Great Expectations.” (Not a word about my premonition that Miss Frost had made an impression on me that would be no less devastating than the one that Estella makes on poor Pip.)
So soon?” Miss Frost asked. “You read Great Expectations only a month ago!”
“I can’t wait to reread it,” I said.
“There are a lot of books by Charles Dickens,” Miss Frost told me. “You should try a different one, William.”
“Oh, I will,” I assured her, “but first I want to reread this one.”
Miss Frost’s second reference to me as William had given me an instant erection—though, at fifteen, I had a small penis and a laughably disappointing hard-on. (Suffice it to say, Miss Frost was in no danger of noticing that I had an erection.)
My all-knowing aunt had told my mother I was underdeveloped for my age. Naturally, my aunt had meant “underdeveloped” in other (or in all) ways; to my knowledge, she’d not seen my penis since I’d been an infant—if then. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the penis word. For now, it’s enough that you know I have extreme difficulty pronouncing “penis,” which in my tortured utterance emerges—when I can manage to give voice to it at all—as “penith.” This rhymes with “zenith,” if you’re wondering. (I go to great lengths to avoid the plural.)
In any case, Miss Frost knew nothing of my sexual anguish while I was attempting to check out Great Expectations a second time. In fact, Miss Frost gave me the impression that, with so many books in the library, it was an immoral waste of time to reread any of them.
“What’s so special about Great Expectations?” she asked me.
She was the first person I told that I wanted to be a writer “because of” Great Expectations, but it was really because of her.
“You want to be a writer!” Miss Frost exclaimed; she didn’t sound happy about it. (Years later, I would wonder if Miss Frost might have expressed indignation at the sodomizer word had I suggested that as a profession.)
“Yes, a writer—I think so,” I said to her.
“You can’t possibly know that you’re going to be a writer!” Miss Frost said. “It’s not a career choice.”
She was certainly right about that, but I didn’t know it at the time. And I wasn’t pleading with her only so she would let me reread Great Expectations; my pleas were especially ardent, in part, because the more exasperated Miss Frost became with me, the more I appreciated the sudden intake of her breath—not to mention the resultant rise and fall of her surprisingly girlish breasts.