Desire and its unsettlements of the soul

By Jeanette Winterson

“We are formed by what we desire,” says Billy Dean, the fatherless narrator and chief hero of John Irving’s 13th novel, “In One Person.”

Irving likes to track his characters over long stretches of time. “In One Person” begins in the mid-1950s, when Billy is 13, and shadows him until he is in his late 60s, in 2010. As a work of fiction, it is true to the way we recall our lives rather than the way we actually live them; we live in linear time — we have no choice — but the curve of our memory is never a straight line. Happenings that lasted an hour can obsess us for years. Years of our lives can be forgotten.

“In One Person” is a story about memory. Inevitably it is also a story about desire, the most unsettling of our memories. And it is a story about reading yourself through the stories of others.

The novel opens with a classic Irving pleasure/pain sequence that makes you laugh out loud even as it awakens your sympathy for the hapless vulnerability of young Billy Dean.

Billy is in the town library of First Sister, Vt., hopelessly infatuated with the librarian, Miss Frost. He is clutching a copy of “Great Expectations.”

“ ‘There are a lot of books by Charles Dickens,’ Miss Frost told me. ‘You should try a different one, William.’ . . .

“Miss Frost’s second reference to me as William had given me an instant erection — though, at 15, I had a small penis. . . . (Suffice it to say, Miss Frost was in no danger ofnoticing that I had an erection.)”

Billy then confesses his pronunciation problems to us; “penis” comes out as “penith,” to rhyme with “zenith.” “I go to great lengths to avoid the plural,” he says.

Miss Frost knows nothing of Billy’s sexual anguish as he tries to check out “Great Expectations” for the second time. Billy knows that only two things matter to him at 15 — to be a writer, and to sleep with Miss Frost — “not necessarily in that order.”

Irving’s characters often want to be writers (T. S. Garp, Ruth Cole), and there are always powerful literary preoccupations running through the novels. “Great Expectations” has long been a core text for Irving’s fascination for children without parents, usually fathers — but the model for “In One Person” is really Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”

First Sister boasts an enthusiastic amateur dramatic society accustomed to staging Agatha Christie mysteries in dreadful wigs. When handsome Richard Abbot is hired at Billy’s school, Favorite River Academy, he decides the best way to teach the boys Shakespeare is to perform it.

As Favorite River is an all-boys school, the female parts are offered through the town, allowing Irving to jumble his worlds and his characters together, just as Prospero does in “The Tempest,” giving plenty of opportunity for comic collision as well as psychological insight.

Miss Frost, banished like a latter-day Caliban to the musty town library, is reintroduced to the boys of Favorite River with interesting consequences. It turns out she was one of them in her younger days: Big Al, undefeated wrestling champion, 6-foot-2 in her socks, now choosing to live as a woman. The grown-ups know, but nobody really wants to know: First Sister is a small town. When Billy finally sleeps with Miss Frost for the first time, he believes she is a woman. When he returns for more, he knows she is a woman with a penis.

Desire and its unsettlements of the soul are as central to John Irving’s work as lost fathers. You could say that our sexual longings are compensatory, and that desire for what is forbidden or taboo is part of the long detective hunt for what we have lost and can never find. Perhaps — but reading Irving, it seems to me that what he is saying about desire outside of the missionary position (a psychic attitude, not a physical preference) is never an apology, nor an explanation.

Desire is democratic; we fall for the wrong people, across age, class, color, gender. Desire is difficult; it messes things up. Desire is defiant; our desires square off against our assumptions, our morality, our conscience and our notion of who we are. There is no doubt that Irving thinks this is a good thing. He is not simplistic, though, not ever. He understands that we don’t always act on or act out our desires. Sometimes we just suffer in silence. Yet he also realizes that the shock to our self-knowledge, or our lack of it, remains the same either way.

Billy’s lumberyard grandpa has been a female impersonator all his life, and although he isn’t interested in becoming a woman, or in sleeping with men who have become women, his straightforward acceptance of who he is gives Billy courage through his own sexual crises and adventures.

Billy is bisexual. He enjoys women, and his best friend, Elaine, is his sometime sexual partner. There’s plenty of discussion in the novel about how hostile either sex can be to bisexuals. Can you trust them? Why can’t they make up their minds? This is painfully described as Billy hits the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Irving isn’t a moralizing writer, but he is a moral one. Billy’s friend Tom lies about his sexuality, thus infecting his wife with H.I.V. and destroying the lives of his children.

The most troubled and baleful character in the novel, desired by all, desiring none, is the schoolboy wrestler Kittredge. Think of Bentley Drummle from “Great Expectations,” on steroids: he’s got the body of a Greek god and the tongue of a viper, and at least in the narrative’s early years, he uses heterosexuality like a weapon.

The truthfulness of Miss Frost and Grandpa Harry set against the dishonesties of Tom and Kittredge, of Billy’s mother and the small minds in the small town suggests that the opposite of right is not wrong; the opposite of right is lying.

In its fierceness and its joyfulness, “In One Person” has the feeling of “The World According to Garp.” (Even the lisp is back — remember Alice in “Garp”?) Miss Frost is analogous not to the earlier book’s resident transsexual, Roberta, but to T. S. Garp’s eccentric self-determining mother, Jenny Fields. The school world is here, the voyage of self-discovery to Europe, the return to the small town, Ulysses-like, after long wanderings.

What’s not here is any biological woman we can get interested in. Elaine is tame. Aunts and mothers are hysterical. Billy’s cousin Gerry is a terrifying lesbian. Kittredge’s mother is a child abuser. The best women are, or were, men.

Ah well. You can’t have everything in one book. “In One Person” gives a lot. It’s funny, as you would expect. It’s risky in what it exposes. Billy the boy, cast as the ungendered sprite Ariel in “The Tempest,” returns as a man to direct “Romeo and Juliet” — an unswervingly heterosexual play, except of course that in Shakespeare’s day Juliet would have been played by a boy. (A “nymph,” as Kittredge used to call Billy.)

Now Billy turns to Kittredge’s angry, searching son, who accuses Billy at 68 of being not “natural,” not “normal.” Billy’s reply echoes the warning Miss Frost gave him years before: “Don’t make me a category before you get to know me.”

Tolerance, in a John Irving novel, is not about anything goes. It’s what happens when we face our own desires honestly, whether we act on them or not.

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