Thursday 20 June 2019

Review: In One Person by John Irving

Doubleday: €16.99


IT'S THE late Fifties in the small town of First Sister, Vermont, though you wouldn't know you were in Eisenhower's America, supposedly a place of repression, puritanism, Cold War chauvinism and xenophobia: the entire town is obsessed by sex, and what's more it can be pretty weird sex.

Billy, the hero of John Irving's 16th novel, discovers -- or decides -- he is bisexual: he gazes longingly at his school's champion wrestler, Kittridge, a surly slob, while at the same time experiencing the hots for the local librarian, Miss Frost.

The skinny Miss Frost is shunned by the ordinary decent townspeople, but she points the literary Billy in the direction of important books -- Great Expectations and, a bit later Giovanni's Room, the gay novel by James Baldwin.

Billy's mother is a neurotic rather prudish figure; his father is long gone and Billy has never met him: needless to say the vanished dad turns out to be homosexual. His mother's second husband, Richard, is a decent type who directs school plays.

His grandfather is a jocular cross-dresser who really comes into his own when his austere wife dies: now he can flounce around in her clothes at will instead of merely on stage with the local drama group where he stars in female roles.

Billy's obsession with Miss Frost shows no sign of abating as he gets older (he is particularly fascinated by her tiny breasts) and eventually she escorts him to a spare bedroom she keeps (in the town library!), and introduces him to the joys of sex -- or so he believes.

This novel has, to some extent at least, been acclaimed in the US, by, among others, Edmund White who called it "a novel that makes you proud to be human".

Another reviewer, though, in The New Yorker, asks, "What prep school boy ... would speak, in 1960, about 'the public image of gender roles?"

This sense of unreality and contrivance -- of a novel taking place in a social vacuum -- bothered me all through In One Person -- that and the fact that in spite of all the self-conscious creation of 'colourful' characters and exotic events, the narrative plods along in a lifeless and seemingly aimless way.

Irving's hero Billy was, like the novelist, born in 1942 in New England; Irving was a competitive wrestler for 20 years and later a coach in this odd sport. Wrestling is important in his story though Irving is so stylistically tame that his wrestling scenes are almost as dull as the erotic bits.

As for Billy, an unlikeable creature who fails to register a whiff of regret at his mother's death in a car crash and seems to the reader to be a bit obtuse (he turns, again improbably, into a novelist), it is only on his second encounter with Miss Frost in her lair that he discovers she's actually a man, something everyone else in First Sister knew all along.

Miss Frost, or Al, a former successful wrestler herself/ himself, is forced to leave town because the good folk can no longer pretend.

I stopped reading John Irving a long time ago, after, I think, The Hotel New Hampshire, and while one has to acknowledge his reputation, I remain impervious to his fey charms which some, amazingly, see as Dickensian.

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