Thirty-four years ago, in “The World According to Garp,” John Irving created a transsexual for the ages in a former football player named Roberta Muldoon. (John Lithgow played her in the movie.)
In his 13th novel, “In One Person,” he’s created another one: a former wrestler, now a librarian, named Alberta (Big Al) Frost.
He doesn’t allow Miss Frost enough pages, though. Instead, he devotes most of the book to Billy Abbott, a writer who is also the narrator and who, notwithstanding his bisexuality, has a lot in common with John Irving.
Much of the story unfolds at Favorite River Academy in First Sister, Vermont (nothing in the novel surpasses these names), where Billy is the adopted son of a faculty member, and wrestling figures large as a sport. Irving was the adopted son of a faculty member at Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, where -- unlike Billy -- he distinguished himself as a wrestler.
Another faculty child, Elaine Hadley, will remain Billy’s best friend and occasional lover for the rest of his life. But as a character she never comes fully into focus.
None of the women in this novel do; it belongs to its men, almost all of them, to use Irving’s term, sexual outsiders -- bi- and homosexuals, transvestites and transsexuals.
Billy and Elaine both fall in love with a mocking wrestler named Jacques Kittredge, a beauty as alluring as he is cruel. Kittredge’s magnetism rivals Miss Frost’s and, like her, he leaves the book far too early. Thereafter the two of them continue to hover as presiding spirits.
In their place, over the course of the novel’s fractured time scheme we get accounts of Billy’s later love affairs -- with a soprano in Vienna, a transsexual in Hamburg.
We also get an obligatory-feeling chapter on the era of AIDS, including Billy and Elaine’s arrival at the deathbed of a minor character, where the hysterical melodrama that unfolds seems both unlikely and unearned.
Irving screws up the chronology, too. He has straight wrestlers panicking over exposure to gay blood in 1981, two years before the virus was isolated and the fear of contagion really began to grip the general public.
Pleas for Tolerance
That’s nitpicking, I know, and a better novel would be impervious to it. Maybe the nits hurt this one because the author’s lack of full engagement has already weakened it.
Billy’s stepfather calls his novels “pleas for tolerance,” which is just what “In One Person” is. It’s a very well-meaning book. And I mean for that statement to be as damning as it sounds. It’s a tale about sex that never becomes sexy.
Irving is still a first-rate storyteller, with a fluid style and a talent for piling on whimsical detail; there was never a point during this long novel when I wasn’t content to be reading. But once Miss Frost and Kittredge disappeared, I missed them badly.
What would impel a writer to abandon such riveting characters in order to concentrate on the familiar and (I’m afraid) less-than-scintillating Billy? The answer seems all too clear. A novelist is sunk when he loses interest in the other people in the room because he’s so fascinated by what he sees in the mirror.
As I was reading, I remembered an evening 20 years ago when I saw Irving interview Michael Ondaatje. It wasn’t long after the publication of Ondaatje’s novel “The English Patient,” and the spotlight was supposed to be his -- Irving was just the interviewer, even though at that point he was more famous. Poor Ondaatje, though, could barely get a word in edgewise.
“In One Person” is published by Simon & Schuster (425 pages, $28). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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