Over the years, in his writing, Irving has explored human sexuality in all its many expressions and, here, he brings all those themes full circle as he asks his readers to accept that all of those expressions are legitimate and are merely a part of the human experience. Of all the Irving books I've read, this one reminded me most of The World According to Garp in its delineation of Irving's favorite themes.
As the narrator of this story, Irving gives us William Abbott, Bill or Billy to most of his friends. This is Bill's story. He had grown up in a small Vermont town where sexual repression seemed a way of life. He attended a local all-boys school where all the boys - at least all the ones we get to know - seemed to be homosexual.
Moreover, the town had a librarian, Miss Frost, who was transgender. She had once been Al Frost - Big Al - and was a famous wrestler at the all-boys school. Bill was not aware of this history (because this was a town that was very good at keeping secrets from its kids) when he met her and developed a heavy and "inappropriate" crush on her. Later, he has his first sexual experience - sort of - with her and learns that she has a penis, a word which Bill is unable to pronounce because it is steeped in such emotion for him. He says "penith," rhyming it with zenith.
His experience with the transgender librarian causes her to be sacked and permanently embitters Bill against his mother and his aunt who were prejudiced against the librarian from the start. Oddly, all of the male members of Bill's family seem perfectly accepting of his sexual proclivities and of Miss Frost, or Big Al as they knew her. Indeed, they are admiring of the librarian and defend her, to no avail, in the big kerfuffle that leads to her dismissal.
Humor is always a part of an Irving book and that is true here as well. The funniest bits seem to be about vaginas and about Bill's faux pas in regard to them, including a memorable description of a vagina as "not ballroom-sized" which unaccountably(?) offends its owner. Our narrator seems essentially uncomfortable with that orifice and unable to deal with the person attached to it.
Bill finishes college and begins a successful career as a novelist. He also continues his career as a sexual explorer and experimenter. His novels reflect his sexual interests.
He moves from one sexual affair to another, most of them with men, but occasionally he dabbles in women. His best friend throughout is Elaine with whom he had bonded in childhood. They try sex together but it is unsatisfying. Nevertheless, they live together, platonically, on various occasions throughout their lives.
This story is being told by Bill as he nears 70 and looks back over the decades of his life. Those decades are marked by a series of sexual affairs, but he never seems to find "in one person" that soul mate he is seeking. Or is he really seeking a soul mate? The closest he comes is with Elaine, but he is perfectly happy with his casual affairs and he will never give them up.
I was engrossed in this book for about two-thirds of its length, but then it began to feel really repetitious to me. After a while, the recitation of serial affairs began to pall. Moreover, we entered the AIDS years and much of the story began to revolve about the horrible symptoms suffered by Bill's friends who were sickening and dying all around him. Not that that isn't compelling stuff, but I needed more context for these victims. In spite of his serial sleeping-around, Bill was never infected because, as he assures us, he had always insisted on the use of condoms since 1968. Plus, he was a "top," and it seems that "bottoms" are more susceptible to infection. Who knew?
Irving wants us to accept his characters as perfectly human, perfectly normal, despite their different sexual appetites and expressions and I have no problem with that, but it would have been easier if I had found the characters a bit more sympathetic. Mostly, I got really impatient with them before the end.
A recurring sentiment is expressed by Bill Abbott in the final paragraph as he speaks to the son of a long-ago school mate who had tormented him: "My dear boy, please don't put a label on me - don't make me a category before you get to know me!" Trouble is, I never really felt I got to know him.