Zeus, the chief god, and his primary wife Hera argued one day over whether men or women enjoyed sex more. He said women did; she said men did. In an effort to prove her point, Hera transformed the prophet Tiresias into a woman for seven years after which he is reputed to have said that of ten parts, men only enjoy one. Hera struck him blind, but the question remained unanswered.
William Shakespeare wrote in his seven ages of man speech in As You Like It "And one man in his time plays many parts..." While the melancholy Jaques is speaking to the developmental stages in a man's life, the quote is apt. Irving chose these lines from Richard II to set the scene for the novel: "Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented."
Any consideration of John Irving's magnificent thirteenth novel must be considered in the light of these quotations. He returns to the themes which have served him well in previous novels. Alienation from the norm, wrestling with one's sexual identity, searching for who one really is, and dealing in some meaningful way with rampant intolerance of anyone who is "different" are all at play here. And, yes, there are many references to wrestling, both real and metaphorical, a reference to a bear or two, and a life that revolves around a private boy's school in First Sister, Vermont.
Irving begins casually, "Let me tell you about Miss Frost." His narrator, William Marshall Abbott, recalls the story of his life in relative tranquility as he nears 70 years old. A bisexual man, he has lost too many of his friends, gay and straight, to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Abbot, who began life as William Francis Dean, is awakened sexually and intellectually when his stepfather, an actor, takes Billy, at age 13, to the public library for the first time. "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." He eventually does have sex with her and does grow up to become a successful writer. He learns eventually that this beautiful older woman was a star wrestler when she was a student years ago at Favorite River Academy, where Billy lives and attends. The road to self-awareness is fraught with difficulties for Billy, but amidst all the angst, Irving's often laugh-out-loud humor shines through.
The introduction of each novel/play/character deepens the force of Irving's novel. When Billy's stepfather tells him, "You're intolerant of intolerance," one feels that John Irving the novelist and human being has presciently summed up the overriding theme of his work, not just that of a character in a novel. In a recent interview, Irving said that he thought he'd been finished with this theme after The World According to Garp, but the lingering intolerance of sexual differences will not go away.
Thank goodness he returned to this theme for, once again, Irving has struck gold. This novel will not be for everyone due to its subject matter. I am confidant that it will shortly join the ever-growing list of literate, thoughtful novels that have been banned in far more places than Boston. But, it is just this kind of book that needs to be on library shelves because it argues so forcefully on behalf of those who are marginalized in our society. His plea for tolerance must not go unheard and unheeded.