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05.13.12

The World According to John Irving

Like his famous previous work, John Irving’s new novel, In One Person, goes boldly into controversial issues. Liesl Schillinger on the surprising feminism of his work—and how she first found him on her parents' shelves.

The American ’70s have been too much maligned—the era reduced by its detractors (or its over-simplifiers) to shag rugs, free love, macramé, lava lamps, and retrospectively cringe-inducing male sensitivity. That’s a shame; because the issues that the 70s grappled with—feminism, equal rights, civil rights, sexual liberation, and the anti-war movement—have not gone away in the intervening decades; and many good things that took root in the mulch of those questing, messy, in some ways guileless times are only now coming to fruition. “The ’60s are over,” Joan Baez wrote, in her song “Winds of the Old Days;” but the 70s never really ended. Like it or not, all of us in this society continue to live in an open-ended ’70s: in which the moral codes, stereotypes, and repressions of preceding generations have melted away, or are trying to; and nothing firm has yet entirely replaced them. It’s a slow and unsure process, exchanging rules for ideals. 

There is no American writer of that era who deserves more to be re-read and reconsidered than John Irving, who wrote three novels in that decade (The Water-Method Man, The 158-Pound Marriage, and The World According to Garp) and who has produced another three or four major novels every decade since, never abandoning his core subject: the individual’s right to respect, regardless of sex or gender orientation. He is daringly feminist, to a degree that his sex-positive contemporaries (Roth and the late Updike) never considered—imagine either of them putting these words in the mouth of a female protagonist: “In this dirty-minded world…you are either somebody’s wife or somebody’s whore—or fast on your way to becoming one or the other. If you don’t fit either category, then everyone tries to make you think there is something wrong with you.” Commentators often focus on Irving’s repeating themes and plot devices—bears, wrestlers, amputations, fatherless children, adultery, Vienna, partner-swapping, transgendered characters, academic and prep-school settings, stories within a story, and epilogues—but these repetitions are set-dressing to his overriding repeat emphasis: tolerance for the breadth and flaws of human nature, particularly as it applies to people that others label sexually defective. 

The first John Irving novel I ever read was The Water-Method Man, his second novel, which he published in 1972, when he was 30. It came into our house sometime after 1978, after The World According to Garp came out. By coincidence, my father is Irving’s age exactly—born in 1942—and like Irving, spent his 30s in academia. It was the 1970s, and my parents were young, liberal, and irreverent, but completely traditional. Like their friends, they gave dinner parties with china and crystal, listened to Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt and Joan Baez, had mortgages and children and (the men) tenure-track jobs. The men had soft mustaches and wore wide-collared shirts, the women wore giant hoop earrings and had long hair. All of them read the novels that everyone in their demographic was reading from coast to coast at the time—Vonnegut, Heller, Tom Robbins, John Irving—though they lived in Indiana. I was 12 when I read The Water-Method Man. Its subject (loosely) is a Ph.D. student who has left his wife and child in the Midwest, and moved into a New York apartment with a large-breasted Polish woman named Tulpen, who flips one “tit” whenever she wants to show scorn. The man, Fred “Bogus” Trumper, has a urethral condition that requires penile surgery. You might think that’s an inappropriate book for a 12-year-old, and I did not read it with parental consent. I filched it from my parents' shelves, soon after watching my father laugh so helplessly while reading it that tears rolled down his cheeks. I needed to know what had made him laugh. Children are obsessed by what makes their parents tick. They want to know what it means to be an adult; they assume there’s a definite answer.

“You make all these sexual extremes seem normal,” adding, “You create these characters who are so sexually ‘different,’ as you might call them.”

My parents read in bed most nights when my brothers and I were growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, each leaning back against a reading pillow on their wide, reassuring parental bed, bookended with individual reading lamps. We kids read, too, in our own bedrooms, with our own lamps. When we heard our parents laugh down the hall, we would rush into their bedroom, wanting to be let in on the joke. Once it was a deadpan sentence in Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus: in which a Spanish-accented voice tells passengers on an ocean liner, “The sheep is now living,” instead of “The ship is now leaving.” Another time, it was a line in Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: “This is where the boogie stops and the woogie begins.” (Per my mother’s instructions, those words will be engraved on her epitaph one day). But when they were reading Irving, for the first time, they refused to explain their laughter: it was grown-up, they said. After reading the book in stealth, I’m pretty sure I figured it out, but it would be indecent to repeat, and I’m not a novelist, who must needs tell all.) After finishing it, I returned it to their shelves and fished out The 158-Pound Marriage (still my favorite) and then Garp. Years later I read The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Widow for One Year.

This month, I read Irving’s newest novel, In One Person, which gathers the echoes of all his earlier novels in one place. And almost instantly, I remembered the experience of reading Irving as a child, at the end of the ’70s. His protagonist, a thoughtful boy named Billy, feels tormented because he has a crush on towering, androgynous, broad-shouldered librarian named Miss Frost, as well as on a handsome young boy in his school. He worries that he’s abnormal. A calm, unshockable adult named Mrs. Hadley assures him, “This isn’t criminal activity!” And later, with hindsight, Billy reflects that Mrs. Hadley’s reassurance was one of his first “indications of the adult world.” She was one of those “truly sensitive and good-hearted grown-ups who were trying to make the adult world more comprehensible and more bearable for young people.” I was not remotely as unconventional as Billy was as a kid; but every contemplative kid feels like an outsider. Irving was one of the “truly sensitive and good-hearted grown-ups” who made the world more comprehensible and more bearable for me. (With hindsight, he also made it far kinkier than I have found it, but that is by the by.) Like my father, decades earlier, I laughed at loud at unrepeatable things in this new book. But with the advantage of age, I knew that Irving knows that the adult world isn’t any more comprehensible, or bearable, for adults than it is for children. Young people just don’t know that yet.

The new frankness that has seeped across society in the post-Garp years has allowed Irving to lay out his inclusive vision in In One Person more explicitly than he has in the past. His bisexual protagonist, Billy, grows up to be a famous author. In his 30s, he moves to New York. “This was the end of the freewheeling seventies; while acceptance of sexual differences wasn’t necessarily the norm, such acceptance was almost normal in New York,” Billy explains. Being bisexual, nonetheless, “meant I would be categorized as more unreliable than usual by straight women, while at the same time (and for the same reasons) I would never be entirely trusted by gay men.” A straight friend kindly gets Billy a pass to practice wrestling at the (then) “all-male bastion” of the New York Athletic Club. But when the AIDS epidemic arrives, Billy knows he’s no longer grata: in the HIV-era, a simple nosebleed on the mat is tantamount to an anthrax scare. After Billy’s old friends and lovers—gay, transgender, and straight—have been decimated by AIDS, he returns to his school to offer moral support to the campus’s new LGBTQ population: the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students. “You’re intolerant of intolerance,” his elderly stepfather tells him. But Billy knows that not everybody is that way: the son of one of his prep-school classmate accuses him, “You make all these sexual extremes seem normal,” adding, “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.”

Exactly. 

With some misgivings, Irving himself, as a young parent, gave the manuscript of Garp to his son Colin to read in 1975, when the boy was 12. On the 20th anniversary of the book’s publication, Irving recalled being “anxious” about that decision, and wrote, “I still believe there are scenes in the book that are unsuitable for twelve-year-olds.” He worried that his son might ask reductive questions that he would resent from adult readers, like “What is your book about? And is it autobiographical?” Instead, when Irving asked Colin for his thoughts, the boy “told” him what the book was about: “It’s about the fear of death, I think,” he said, and amended, “more accurately, the fear of the death of children—or of anyone you love.” At any age, in any decade, these are thoughts that test the conscience and the heart, thoughts that Irving has made a career of wrestling to the mat, not worrying about whether they can be pinned.