Sunday, July 29th, 2012
The Short Take:
Of the many John Irving novels I’ve read, this one probably hit me the hardest. It isn’t easy reading about a young man who is confused and even ashamed of his “crushes on the wrong people.” Then later there was so much dying. As usual, Irving includes characters and sequences that are light-hearted. But it was still hard. Yet I loved it.
First off, a small rant/disclaimer. I read a New York Times review of this book and was vastly irritated. I don’t get the point of making statements like the author’s characters do what he wants them to; as if that were wrong. Huh? This is why I call myself a book lover and not a book critic. Just so you know.
Irving always delivers an engaging book, peopled with delightfully eccentric characters and often addressing very serious subjects. You can also often find wrestling, New England, an absent parent, and other recurring subjects. This one follows that pattern. What made it tougher than most is you feel the confusion and discomfort of someone who knows his sexual leanings are not what is expected of him. You want to tell him, “it gets better.” But does it? Ahead of him lie those peak years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, when men die by the thousands.
Irving surrounds his protagonist with family and friends who love him and strive to help him find his way. This is what makes this book so wonderful, and bearable. From the grandfather who always plays women in community plays to the librarian that inspires the hero’s early desire to become a writer, these individuals lift you up along with the main character.
A Little Plot:
The protagonist and narrator, Billy, is a young teen in the early 60s when he realizes he is sexually attracted to the wrong people, from the substantially older librarian, Miss Frost, to the champion of his school’s wrestling team. He feels like there must be something wrong in him that comes from the father he has no memory of (and that no one will discuss).
As he matures and recognizes his bisexuality, he also realizes he will always be a “sexual suspect:” neither gay men nor straight women fully trust him or quite believe he is as he claims. Yet while there is unfulfilled love, there are also enduring friendships.
Billy travels from New England to Vienna to New York before returning home again. His life is an amazing, absorbing journey. It’s certainly worth sharing.
For more about John Irving and his work, click here.