I was initially keen to read John Irvingís colorful examination of bisexuality in its early 1950s Vermont setting.
This landscape rapidly becomes a battleground for the emotional growth of writer William Abbott, who strafes the tale with his hopes and fears, his sexual identity reflecting his lifelong intimate yearnings for both men and women.
With most of the action set in the rarefied atmosphere of
an amateur dramatic society, the First Sister Players, the Hadley family
occupies a very special niche in the student world of the Three Rivers Academy.
There William is viewed as a product of his runaway dadís offspring, and his ďgenetic packageĒ progeny. When Williamís stepfather--tall, dark, and handsome Richard Abbott--enters his life, Richard's debonair and authoritative presence is a welcome buffer to the homophobic rantings of his mother, Mary Marshall, who
is so upset by certain ďsexual matters."
Irvingís novel is a story about love, family secrets, and the more sexual aspects of one manís growth. But as his tale unfolds in exotic layers of the intimate and the personal, I found that I did not care much for William. While the authorís conceit tries to make us care about his hero and the infinite number of people he meets throughout his life, much of the
surrounding warped reality simply comes across as unbelievable and absurd.
Grandpa Harry, owner of the First Sister Sawmill and Lumberyard, may be a vibrant female impersonator, but not for one second did I believe in this man who likes to act out his closeted cross-dressing fantasies by playing women characters on stage. Then there
is the centerpiece of the novel: enigmatic town librarian Miss Frost, a woman with an unattainable freedom, a certain lawlessness, and an unquestionable sexual presence, whom William meets when Richard gives him his first library card.
Irving seems to imply that William's bisexuality is formed by his early homosexual yearnings, displayed in his "crushes," and most manifested in his inexplicable attraction to Miss Frost. As Williamís life spirals though the years, to a summer tour through Europe in 1961 with best friend Tom Atkins to their time in New York in the age of AIDS, there
is a disconnect always suggestive of Williamís conflicted sexual behavior. While William is not welcomed by his gay friends, who either refuse to believe that he did really like women or feel that he
is somehow hedging his bets about being gay, I found myself none the wiser regarding the origin or evolution of Williamís proclivities.
The story has some lovely tragicomic moments: The use of Shakespeare and Ibsen's plays and the tragic, romantic novels of Baldwin and Flaubert give the tale a symbolic construct, emphasizing the smoke and mirrors of shifting allegiances and sexual role-playing, while also contributing to Irvingís theme of sexual fluidity. Overall, however, I found the story disappointing and a bit boring. Not only is the narrative sacrificed to page upon page of ironical bons mot about college life, we must also wade through Williamís labored fantasies about certain aspects of the male and female anatomies. Toward the end of the novel I lost interest, saddled with too much information about every character and circumstance, a technique that seriously compromises the direction of the plot.
Irving ripples into Williamís sensual feelings, also mixing the machismo wrestling world with sensitive and closeted locker-room whisperings. In the end,
I grew weary of William and his pretentious angst, his chronic self-involvement and endless love affairs. Too fed up to plod through to the end, I just skimmed to the conclusion.
This is not an author or a title that I will care to seek out again.