Live and let love

(This review was originally published in the Washington Independent Review of Books.)

Let’s see, a new novel by John Irving. Wrestling? Check. Gender confusion? Check. Northern New England? Check. Vienna? Check. Bears? No. Charm? Check.

A closer look. Right off the bat, we understand the title—here’s the novel’s epigraph:

“Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented.” William Shakespeare, Richard II

Trouble foretold. That, coupled with the book’s cover, certain to prompt a double take—a faceless photograph of a slender, subtly masculine figure slipping into (or out of) a bra—and we know that we are in sexually slippery territory. I am reminded of the old Kinks song, Lola; “Boys will be girls and girls will be boys…” Or, as Shakespeare put it in that iridescent cross-dressing extravaganza, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, “thy mind is a very opal”, changing colors when viewed from different angles.

This is familiar John Irving country.

Thirty four years ago, Irving, thick-necked and wrestler tough with arms crossed and period-correct hair, glares unsmiling at the camera—it’s the back cover of his landmark 1978 novel The World According to Garp. Oozing masculinity, Irving demands attention. Hey, listen up—read this, junior! And, we did.

Garp, a wonderfully quirky novel with one or two images that have stuck with me all these many decades, pretty much kicks off with a penis joke. Though Irving, back in the day, opted for a less shocking word, at least for polite literary society—peter. The joke, something about a cabby, an injured man and the venerable Peter Bent Hospital of Boston, immediately seduced the reader, setting the story stage for the laughs, love and horror to come.

Same as it ever was.

In One Person, Irving’s grimly delightful and politically timely new novel, also begins with the male member, er, front and center and, like Garp, is the story of a “sexual suspect”—Billy Abbott.  Seems that our narrator Billy, early in life a student at the all-male Favorite River Academy of First Sister, Vermont in the mid-1950s, is developing crushes on the wrong people (e.g. a certain Miss Frost, a rather formidable and imposing older librarian). Billy also has an endearing cross-dressing grandfather who is a star in the First Sister Players troupe of amateur Shakespeareans, and he has trouble pronouncing the word—penis. The plural form, penises, is a particular problem. (Has anybody ever actually used the word penises? Never mind.)  Know that many penises populate these pages as we follow Billy, later Bill, through the decades up to the present day.

John Irving grips the reader in a steely polemic headlock, much softened by the storybook charm of a Vermont town inhabited by a decidedly large and alternatively eccentric cast straight out of an old Bob Newhart Show—you know the one. Yet it’s a literary grenade tossed across the reader’s table. Or Kindle. It’s no dud. It’s an important book that will become, over time, a cultural standard. In a recent email to the New York Times, Irving stated, “If, as a country, we truly stand for equal rights, there is no forgiving intolerance of our sexual differences; opposition to gay marriage is sexual bigotry.”

And that’s what it’s all about. No pussyfooting around. Even in First Sister, Vermont. As Billy says early in the novel, “Oh, the winds of change; they do not blow gently into the small towns of northern New England.”

He’s right. And the novel, which is about secrets, sexual malleability, identity, theatre, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Rilke’s terrifying angels, uncertainty, missing fathers and disappointed mothers, must traverse the tricky cultural crevasses of all of the second half of the American 20th century and—most ominously, the worst of the ‘80s—the AIDS epidemic in all its graphically depicted horror. Told in Irving’s straight-forward sturdy New England prose, Bill, in his present-day voice of experience, looks back on his life, and, like memory itself, jumps forward, backward, weaving past and future incidents into the story, then circling back to the narrative present all within the confines of fourteen tightly structured chapters, each titled like the key words and phrases of his life. All in the pursuit of, among other people and things, Miss Frost, his father and love.

Bill, thoroughly likeable, though many times, like anybody, frustratingly evasive and a bit callow, has regrets. Mid-way through the story, he says:

“In a future novel (an early one), I would write: “Ambition robs you of your childhood. The moment you want to become an adult—in any way—something in your childhood dies.” (I might have been thinking of that simultaneous desire to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost, not necessarily in that order.)”

More specifically, he goes on to say that life is a “series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.” I suppose I could have written “betrayals” instead of “robberies”; in my own family’s case, I might have used the deceptions word—citing lies of both omission and commission. But I’ll stand by what I wrote; it suffices.”

But fear not, it’s not all bad news. In One Person is a lovely pleasure. Elaine, Bill’s wise, lifelong best friend, sometime roommate and sometime lover, has a profane trombone of a voice and it is with her, that bisexual Bill shares his most intimate moments

“What’s it mean?”

Adagio means slowly, softly, gently,” Elaine answered.


That would be about the best you could say for our efforts at lovemaking, which we tried, too—with no more success than the living together part, but we tried. “Adagio,” we would say, when we tried to make love, or afterward, when we were trying to fall asleep. We say it still; we said it when we left San Francisco, and we say it when we close letters or emails to each other now. It’s what love means to us, I guess—only adagio. (Slowly softly, gently.) It works for friends, anyway.

And Grandpa Harry, the gentle lumberyard owner and community theatre actor who likes to dress in his cranky wife’s clothing, is Bill’s least terrifying guardian angel:

“And what about the Madame Bovary guy?” I asked my grandfather.

“Ah, well—there’s people you meet, Bill,” Grandpa Harry said. “Some of ‘em are merely encounters, nothin’ more, but occasionally there’s a love-of-your-life meetin’, and that’s different—you know?”

But in the end, the novel haunts and seduces. The way characters say, “I saw her—she’s truly beautiful…she used to wrestle.” Or, “I’ve seen him,” Tom whispered hoarsely. “He not at all who we thought he was—he’s more like us than we ever imagined. He’s beautiful, Bill!”

Friends and lovers come and go, some lost in the storm of life, leaving the survivors to carry on, clinging to the wreckage, leaving them to see, to become, do the best they can. Late in the novel, Bill says, “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” Perhaps with that and a little Shakespearean peace, love and understanding we can all live and let love.

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