”Look, here it is--I just have to say this,” young Kittredge said; he almost couldn’t look at me. “i don’t know you, I admit--I don’t have a clue who my father really was, either, But I’ve read all your books, and I know what you do--I mean, in your writing. You make all these sexual extremes seem normal--that what you do. Like Gee, that girl, or what she is--or what she’s becoming. 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.”
“Yes, that’s more or less what I do.” I told him.
John Irving doing that thing he do.
His story, Billy/Bill/William Abbott, begins when he meets Miss Frost, the librarian of the First Sister Public Library. In her presence he was overcome with a wave of unprecedented desire.
”I’m going to to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination. We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost--not necessarily in that order.”
Hormones are so lovely in the proper dosages, and so alarming when they gallop.
Billy has a problem with inappropriate crushes. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason in who they target or why they must come at him so frequently. He develops one for his step-father Richard Abbott, embarrassing and alarming all wrapped in one explosive heart pounding package. His best friend Elaine’s mother provides a mental image that relieves... pressure... for him frequently.
”I hadn’t been honest with Elaine about my crushes: I’d not yet been brave enough to tell her that both Miss Frost and Jacques Kittredge turned me on. And how could I have told Elaine about my confounding lust for her mom? Occasionally, I was still masturbating to the homely and flat-chested Martha Hadley--that tall, big-boned woman with a wide, thin-lipped mouth, whose long face I imagined on those young girls who were the training bra models in my mom’s mail-order catalogs.”
Ahhh remember those days when certain pages of the Sear Roebuck Catalog could provide a bit of stimulation under the covers with a light bulb burning so hot there was fear it would catch the sheets on fire?
Mrs. Hadley was also Billy’s therapist. He has an impediment with certain words. In particular with a part of his anatomy that he is most assuredly most obsessed with. It comes out penith.
Don’t ask him to say the plural.
Miss Frost is his number one obsession, but easily his number two is a wrestler named Kittredge. The same boy that picks on him so mercilessly. The same boy that Elaine is also absolutely crazy about. It doesn’t end there. Kittredge’s mother is just as fascinating to this pair of friends, united in many things, but certainly between the two of them maybe setting an all time record in this small Vermont town for “inappropriate” obsessions.
”Elaine and I couldn’t look at him without seeing his mother, with her legs so perfectly crossed on those uncomfortable bleacher seats at Kittredge’s wrestling match; Mrs. Kittredge had seemed to watch her son’s systematic mauling of his overmatched opponent as if it were a pornographic film, but with the detached confidence of an experienced woman who knew she could do it better. ‘Your mother is a man with breasts,’ I wanted to say to Kittredge, but of course I didn’t dare.”
John Wallace Blunt JR (Irving) wrestled at Exeter Academy. It does make me wonder which one of these boys was the one that inspired the character Kittredge. Irving wrestled competitively for more than twenty years and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1992.
Miss Frost continues to feed Billy a bloated diet of literature.”When I was reading with what Miss Frost described as the ‘reckless desperation of a burglar ravishing a mansion,’ she one day she said to me, ‘Slow down, William, savor, don’t gorge.’”One day she decides he is finally ready to be given the bookGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.
Baldwin absolutely kicks his ass.
We’ve all had those moments when a book finds its way into our hands at a waterfall juncture when we know from the first pages that life as we know it is never going to be quite the same again. As we feel new bridges and roads being built in our brains in anticipation of the skyscrapers of knowledge that will begin to rise out of the rubble of our youthful beliefs, we tingle and tremble with the excitement of the vast possibilities. As these new vistas open before us we weep for those that don’t read.
Writers kick my ass all the time.
Because William is a switch hitter, a bisexual, a man attracted to all the variations of human sexuality he finds relationships difficult.
”On this bitter cold night in New York, in February of 1978, when I was almost thirty-six, I had already decided that my bisexuality 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.”
Trust is a bedrock part of any relationship and it is hard enough when we deal with it in what is considered “traditional” arrangements. I guess it would only make sense that more pressure would be felt by the other side of the equation if one partner finds a larger percentage of the population potentially attractive.
So is Billy actually John Irving? Joy Tipping of the Dallas News had a chance to ask Irving a few questions about his own longings sexually.
Irving, 70, says that although “Billy is not me,” he is “my imagination of what I might have been if I’d acted on all my earliest impulses as a young teenager.”
The author says he has “always identified with and sympathized with a wide range of sexual desires. When I was 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.”
He was, he says, terrified of being gay. “It turned out that I liked girls, but the memory of my attractions to the ‘wrong’ people never left me,” he says. “The impulse to bisexuality was very strong; my earliest sexual experiences — more important, my earliest sexual imaginings — taught me that sexual desire is mutable.”
With regard to tolerance or lack thereof, Irving notes, “I think our sympathy for others comes, in part, from our ability to remember our feelings. … Certainly, sexual tolerance comes from being honest with ourselves about what we have imagined sexually.”
This book has and will make a lot of people uncomfortable. There are lots of explicit references to sexual organs and sexual situations, although very little actual sex occurs in the book. Most of this book is about longing, about not understanding, and maybe most importantly about being honest about desire. It takes decades for Billy to assemble enough layers of perception to overcome the mixed bag of self-loathing and guilt so he can finally discover who he is supposed to be. The next step is finding a way to be comfortable with the person he finds.
Irving takes us through the Vietnam era where men had the choice of checking the “homosexual tendencies” box that would label them 4-F or unfit for service. (Being in the closet could cost you your life.) We also experience the carnage to his friends as the beginning of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s sweeps through his acquaintances with efficient devastation. I can only hope that people who are afraid of themselves, afraid of who they love and desire, will read this book and feel a little braver about accepting who they were meant to be.