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Penis Envy

Much of his life, William Frances Dean Marshall Abbott—the eponymous main character of John Irving’s wicked thirteenth novel, In One Person—has difficulty pronouncing the plural of the word penis, usually tripping over the word so that it sounds like penith-zizzes.  The difficult articulation is not only locked into his own childhood sexual fantasies and misunderstandings about sex but, additionally, a rather clever commentary on the story itself, mostly about a group of boys in the 1950s at a single-gender prep school,  where wrestling and drama were highlights of the school’s extracurricular activities.

William, also known as Bill and Billy, has little trouble pronouncing the singular of the word, only the plural, but probably thinking of or seeing one penis isn’t so unusual.   When there are many, be careful. To say that In One Person is about the evolution of this country’s comfort with penises is a half-truth of the novel—the other half encompassing attitudes toward gender fluidity, but particularly homosexuality and bisexuality.  These are not exactly new topics for Irving’s fiction, though In One Person reads as if it is the author’s definitive statement, particularly the acceptance, the tolerance of differing sexual practices and concepts of gender.  By the end of the story, at the end of the first decade of this century, Billy is not what he was at the beginning but, thankfully, neither is the nation.

In a recent interview in Publishers’ Weekly, Irving stated, “I’ve always identified and sympathized with a wide range of sexual desires.  As a boy, I was confusingly attracted to just about everyone: in lieu of having much in the way of actual sex (this was the ‘50s), I imagined having sex all the time—with a disturbing variety of people.  I was attracted to my friends’ mothers, to girls my own age, and—at the all boys’ school I attended, where I was on the wrestling team—to certain older boys among my teammates.  Easily two-thirds of my sexual fantasies frightened me.  My first girlfriend was so afraid of getting pregnant that she permitted only anal intercourse.  I liked it so much that this added to my terror of being gay.

“It turned out that I liked girls, but the memory of my attractions to the ‘wrong people’ never left me.  What I’m saying is that the impulse to bisexuality was very strong; my earliest sexual experiences—more important, my earliest sexual imaginings—taught me that sexual desire is mutable.  In fact, in my case—at a most formative age—sexual mutability was the norm.”

In One Person is set at Favorite River Academy, in Vermont, no doubt modeled on similarities with Exeter, which Irving himself attended.  In the opening paragraph, Billy tells us about his attraction to Miss Frost, the librarian at the public library—not the academy’s.  Miss Frost will pop in and out of the story, which is told from Billy’s first-person perspective as he approaches his seventieth birthday, years after he’s become a successful writer.  Thus, at the beginning, soon after we learn about Billy’s sexual interests in both boys and girls and that he identifies himself as bisexual, we realize that he is a survivor, a survivor of the AIDS pandemic which will be the focus of much of the final third and the most moving parts of the novel.

But way before that—before AIDS had taken the lives of so many young males—Billy is troubled not simply by his ubiquitous sexual urges, but by his missing father, who left his mother shortly after getting her pregnant.  This is a theme that has also appeared in Irving’s other novels and is also a fact of his own life.  At Favorite River Academy, Billy wrestles and frequently appears in the school’s many productions of Shakespeare’s plays, which frequently deal with sexual fluidity.  Equally important for this focus and a strong influence on his life is Billy’s grandfather Harry, who is not only on the faculty of the academy, but as a cross-dresser (both on-stage and off), typically playing female roles in First Sister’s amateur theatre.

So we’re back in Irving country: wrestling, theatrics, sexuality, the search for the father, troubled family dynamics in an extended family of fairly weird people—even a couple of bears.  Billy has strong crushes on a number of other wrestlers (“a homosexual attraction to other wrestlers” he tells us), but just as strong interests in the girls and the women around him.  And the environment itself appears to promote sexual exploration.  Besides his cross-dressing grandfather, there are tales of other boys’ similar conflicts, including incest and—eventually—the attractions of feminine looking boys, transsexuals (to use the earlier term) and transgendered.  The frequency of these gender flip-flops strains the novel’s credibility by the end, suggesting that most wrestlers are closeted.

Though In One Person is not John Irving’s finest work, his legions of readers will not be disappointed.  The novel’s comic hi-jinks about cross-dressing actors sometimes get lost in lengthy passages devoted to whatever production is being mounted (no pun intended) either at Favorite River Academy or the First Sister regional theater.  I admire, however, the careful plotting of the story, the multiple surprises, the always engaging and sympathetic characters, though I have only mentioned a few of them.

Finally, the novel is a profound statement about American’s endless fixation on constantly changing sexual mores, hinted at in a statement near the end of the story when a minor character says to Billy about his writing: “You make all these sexual extremes seem normal….  You create these characters who are so sexually ‘different,’ as you might call them—or ‘fucked up,’ which is what I would call them—and then you expect us to sympathize with them, or feel sorry for them, or something.”  Especially their penises.

John Irving: In One Person
Simon & Schuster, 425 pp., $28.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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