Reviewed by Rima Walker
In this novel John Irving introduces us to Billy, 13 years old in the ‘50s, whose confused and difficult life is revealed to us by Billy himself when he is a much older man in his 70s with complete self-knowledge that he is bisexual. As an adolescent, Billy is still somewhat naive about his emotions and desires and considers himself at one point a “sexual suspect” because he finds himself attracted deeply to Miss Frost, the town librarian, and to Richard Abbott, the man who becomes his stepfather. These are crushes that Billy finds “wrong,” but crushes that continue for the rest of his life. He never finds out what to do about crushes on the wrong people.
Both Miss Frost and Richard and his grandfather Harry, who cross dresses and appears as a woman in the plays produced by Richard, influence Billy strongly. Richard likes Shakespeare and puts on several of his plays that require female roles. And, of course, in Shakespeare’s day women were not allowed on the stage so that female roles were usually taken by boys. Harry loves taking on female roles, especially as characters in Agatha Christie’s plays based on her books. He clearly enjoys the fact that he can “be” a woman, dressed up and made up, without a qualm but with absolutely no desire to become one.
In the first paragraph of the novel, Billy says we “are formed by what we desire” and in the moment of knowing he wanted to sleep with Miss Frost he says: “I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.” Reading this so early in the book, we might feel that this is going to be a comic novel, but although it is written with Irving’s particular sense of humor, it is also sad. In the ‘50s no one wanted to come out about their proclivities, let alone a bisexual person, for bisexuals, as Billy thinks, were looked upon with suspicion by both straight and gay people.
Billy’s desire to become a writer is reinforced by Miss Frost, and Irving quotes Auden: “In order to write about anything, you need to notice something.” And noticing is what Billy is very good at even if he doesn’t always understand what he is noticing. As he grows older, Billy comes across many people who influence him, both straight and gay—his lesbian cousin Gerry who is not accepted but is ignored; his affair with Tom with whom he travels in Europe after graduation, “what a would-be writer should do”; Kittridge, a fellow student who torments him but hides serious secrets of his own; and Elaine, a straight young woman who becomes fast friends with Billy early on and a factor in his education concerning bisexuality. Both Elaine and Billy desire Kittridge, but this doesn’t stand in the way of their relationship. And both of them learn valuable things from this desire. Kittridge turns out to be a main character, although we don’t meet him until late, He hurts Billy emotionally and physically.
There is a crucial scene between Billy and Tom when they are in Europe and Billy is reading Madame Bovary aloud to him. Tom is revolted by Emma Bovary—the descriptions of her clothes, her behavior towards her husband Charles, her delight in a lover; all of this disgusts him and at one point Billy decides that Tom is “going to throw up in our bed.” Tom wants monogamy and hates infidelity, and Billy realizes that Tom most fears Billy’s infidelity in their relationship. So monogamy becomes one of many things Billy hates about the “exclusive heterosexual life.”
Irving continues to take us through Billy’s life and awareness well into the ‘80s when Billy sees many of his friends die of AIDS, “the monster in the darkness”. These descriptions are devastating, and so is the following comment: “By ’95—in New York alone—more Americans had died of AIDS than were killed in Vietnam.” Many of Irving’s novels are political in that he reveals his thinking about social issues that confront us and polarize us and take a great deal of time to resolve:—abortion, dysfunctional families, diverse forms of sexuality, divorce. His portraits of children are so fine—many are naive but almost all are wise or come to be, although not often easily. I immediately think of Ruth Cole, the little girl in A Widow For One Year, which was published in 1998 and of whom Irving writes: “That Ruth Cole would grow up to be that rare combination of a well respected literary novelist and an internationally best selling author is not as remarkable as the fact that she managed to grow up at all.” This could be said about Billy and other children Irving writes about. And please don’t think that Irving has omitted his twin passions of wrestling and bears. There is some of that too in this beautifully written bid for Tolerance.* ~