John Irving has been a unique force in contemporary fiction for decades; he can be a brave and bold voice for fairness and common sense. The complexity of his plots is often matched by the quirkiness of his characters. Sexual identity, with all it's twists and permutations, would seem like a perfect fit for the Irving treatment. Sadly, it is not. This story is narrated by Bill Abbott, an impressionable adolescent who is struggling with his bisexuality at a repressive boarding school in the waning days of the 1950's. He comes under the influence of a small-breasted, transsexual librarian with a big heart, who provides him with a relevant reading list and his first sexual encounter. He embarks on a transcontinental sexual odyssey, returning to Vermont occasionally to bury another of his colorful kinfolk.
One problem is that Bill and his amazing coterie of misfits and malcontents never come alive as characters. They seem to function primarily as agents to further Irving's political agenda. Even if you agree, as I do, with his premise: that sexual expression is a personal decision and should be guaranteed to all, it is still difficult to overlook his awkward prose and the mind-numbing repetition. I found the whole thing tiresome. Even the plot, with it's Dickensian twists and coincidences grated on me. I found myself skimming the last few pages because I just wanted it to end. This was a big disappointment.