In One Person John Irving

IOPI enjoyed A Prayer for Owen Meaney but found that this book had many similar themes: a private school setting, a boy with pronunciation difficulties and wresting. Indeed, the narrator of this story is also a writer who is accused of writing about the same themes repeatedly.

The narrator’s teenage sexuality is realistically portrayed: fumbling with a girl and fancying bullies. So too is his desire for knowledge yet he is prone to gaffes, such as not knowing that James Baldwin was black.

He is, however, obsessive, for example about who told a particular story, like someone four years younger and about a ‘training bra’.

He makes some profound statements such as, ‘we are formed by what we desire.’ and “We already are who we are.”

There is the occasional nice turn of phrase, for example arrested development is described as bugs in amber.

However, there are some odd expressions for an American: ‘pissed off’ tends to be English. I thought Americans simply said ‘pissed’

The helpfulness of the librarian reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s story, and the geekiness of librarians who see books as collectibles rather than as things to ponder is evident in her statement that is was a waste of time rereading any book when there are so many other books.

I didn’t like much that followed the introduction of AIDS to this book – I have previously avoided books that deal with it.

Members of our book group had mixed feelings about this book. Most didn’t like it, for example: ‘It was the opposite of a page-turner.’ ‘Two-thirds of it was a page-turner but he lost his way.’ ‘I liked his quirky start but, by the end, I wanted to fill him.’ ‘I enjoyed quite as bit of it but I wished he’d got on with it. It needed a sharper focus. It was repetitious and needed editing.’ ‘I didn’t /couldn’t finish the book- I really HATED it – difficult to put my finger on it- but it seemed lacking in any kind of narrative drive- very rambling. Also just like a long list of activities- like a big “what I did at the weekend” but for a whole lifetime instead? Or rather who I slept with during my lifetime? Didn’t seem to have any feelings or thoughts or “interior life”.  I just couldn’t engage with the narrator or the story.’ ‘Tedious.’ ‘There is more to people than simply labelling them ‘tops’ or ‘bottoms’.

There is something very unrealistic about this book. It is mainly about school and its aftermath. There cannot be that many people who keep in touch with most of their schoolmates throughout their life and hardly meet anybody else.  Nor can there be that many cross dressers in the same cohort.

The people in the book are also very insular. Despite living in a small town, there is nothing about the outside world except for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Nothing about McCarthyism for example.

Bisexuality needs to be understood more but this book won’t facilitate it.


“We are formed by what we desire”

“Don’t forget this, too: Rumors aren’t interested in the unsensational story; rumors don’t care what’s true.”

“And when you love a book, commit one glorious sentence of it-perhaps your favorite sentence-to memory. That way you won’t forget the language of the story that moved you to tears.”

“Self-hatred is worse than loneliness.”

“Gender mattered a whole lot less to Shakespeare than it seems to matter to us.”

“My dear boy, ” Miss Frost said sharply. “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me – don’t make a category before you get to know me!”

“He was one of those people things came easily to, but he did little to demonstrate that he deserved to be gifted.”

“All I say is: Let us leave les folles alone; let’s just leave them be. Don’t judge them. You are not superior to them – don’t put them down.”

“Most places we leave in childhood grow less, not more, fancy.”

“You can learn a lot from your lovers, but-for the most part-you get to keep your friends longer, and you learn more from them.”

“It doesn’t really matter who said it – it’s so obviously true. Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

“The time to read Madame Bovary is when your romantic hopes and desires have crashed, and you will believe that your future relationships will have disappointing – even devastating – consequences.”

“Novels are just another kind of cross-dressing, aren’t they?”

“It happens to many teenagers-that moment when you feel full of resentment or distrust for those adults you once loved unquestioningly.”

“You live your life at the time you live it — you don’t have much of an overview when what’s happening to you is still happening.”

“It is exhausting to be seventeen and not know who you are.”

“…where our desires “come from”; that is a dark, winding road.”

“…friends were more important than lovers – not least for the fact that friendships generally lasted longer than relationships.”

“…there’s a limit to enduring admiration being a substitute for love.”

“I’ll bet every fucking one of your angels is going to be terrifying!”

“That’s okay,” I said. “We’re writers. We make things up.”

“Nostalgia!” Miss Frost cried. “You´re nostalgic!” She repeated. “Just how old are you, William?” She asked.

“Seventeen, ” I told her.

“Seventeen!” Miss Frost cried, as if she’d been stabbed. “Well, William Abbott, if you’re nostalgic at seventeen, maybe you are going to be a writer!”

“I’m just a woman with a penis!” she would say, her voice rising.”

“Of course, everyone is intolerant of something or someone.”

“By ’95 – in New York, alone – more Americans had died of AIDS than were killed in Vietnam.”

“people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents.”

“I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the penis word.”

“Why do you guys want to take all the mystery away? Isn’t the mystery an exciting part of sex?”

“You should wait, William,” Miss Frost said. “The time to read Madame Bovary is when your romantic hopes and desires have crashed, and you believe that your future relationships will have disappointing – even devastating – consequences.”

“Someone who hasn’t read a novel doesn’t really know what it’s about, William.”

“Small towns may revile you, but they have to keep you-they can’t turn you away.”

“You can’t possibly know that you’re going to be a writer!” Miss Frost said. “It’s not a career choice.”

“Never trust a man with a lunatic wife in an attic,” Richard told me. “And anyone named Heathcliff should make you suspicious.”

“Bill is a fiction writer, but he writes in the first-person voice in a style that is tell-all confessional; in fact, his fiction sounds as much like a memoir as he can make it sound.”

“God, I think I just hit a high E-flat – and I really held it!” Esmeralda said, after one of her more prolonged orgasms, but my ears were warm and sweaty, and my head had been held so tightly between her thighs that I hadn’t heard anything.”

“What do you think I imagine making love to a vagina would be like? Maybe like having sex with a ballroom!”

“If you live long enough, Bill – it’s a world of epilogues,” Richard Abbott said.”

“Isn’t it perfectly possible that Nils and his wife are too depressed to have kids? The prospect of having kids depresses the shit out of me, and I’m neither suicidal nor Norwegian!”

“There were those apres-sex moments when, in a half-asleep or forgetting that I was with a woman, I would reach out and touch her vagina- only to suddenly pull back my hand, as if surprised.”

“It’s as if you’ve been shot in the heart, Bill, but you’re unaware of the hole or the loss of blood. I doubt you even heard the shot!”

“…one of the more sophisticated and accepting things about Europe, when it came to difficult decisions regarding sexual identity, was that the Europeans were so used to sexual differences that they had already begun to make fun of them.”

“You know, it’s not only writers who have this problem, but writers really, really have this problem; for us, a so-called train of thought, though unspoken, is unstoppable.”

“I had acquired an undeniable mystique – if only to the Bancroft butt-room boys. Don’t forget: Miss Frost was an older woman, and that goes a long way with boys – even if the older woman has a penis!”

“What would Miss Frost have thought of me? I wondered; I didn’t mean my writing. What would she have thought of my relationships with men and women? Had I ever “protected” anyone? For whom had I truly been worthwhile?”

“Ah, well…” I started to say, and then stopped. So that was where he was going; I’d heard it before. Richard had told me that I’d not been standing in my mother’s shoes in 1942, when I was born; he’d said I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, judge her. It was my not forgiving her that irked him-it was my intolerance of her intolerance that bugged him.”

“According to my mother, I was a fiction writer before I’d written any ficton, by which she meant not only that I invented things, or made things up, but that I preferred this kind of fantasising or pure imagining to what other people generally liked – she meant reality, of course.”

“And when you love a book, commit one glorious sentence of it—perhaps your favorite sentence—to memory. That way you won’t forget the language of the story that moved you to tears.”

“but you live your life at the time you live it—you don’t have much of an overview when what’s happening to you is still happening.”

“We can afford the workers’ compensation, Harry—he’ll watch what he says the time next, won’t he?” Nils would say. “The ‘next time,’ Nils,” Grandpa Harry would gently correct his old friend.”

“When the ship suddenly pitched more steeply, the bookworm lost his grip. He came skipping over the toilet seats—his ass made a slapping sound—until he collided with my father at the opposite end of the row of toilets. “Sorry—I just had to keep reading!” he said. Then the ship rolled in the other direction, and the soldier sallied forth, skipping over the seats again. When he’d slid all the way to the last toilet, he either lost control of the book or he let it go, gripping the toilet seat with both hands. The book floated away in the seawater. “What were you reading?” the code-boy called. “Madame Bovary!” the soldier shouted in the storm. “I can tell you what happens,” the sergeant said. “Please don’t!” the bookworm answered. “I want to read it for myself!”

“Motherfucking Christ,” Gerry said to me on that Christmas Day, 1960. “Isn’t it perfectly possible that Nils and his wife are too depressed to have kids? The prospect of having kids depresses the shit out of me, and I’m neither suicidal nor Norwegian!”

“That Christmastime night, all Mr. Lockley could manage to direct to Elaine was a minimally cordial bow—as if he were saying the unutterable, “Good evening, knocked-up faculty daughter. How are you managing now, you smelly little slut?”

“Listen to me, Bill,” Richard said. “Let the librarian be your new best friend. If you like what she’s given you to read, trust her. The library, the theater, a passion for novels and plays – well, Bill, this could be the door to your future. At your age, I lived in a library! Now novels and plays are my life.”

“…worst of all were the highly unlikely science-fiction novels, or the equally implausible futuristic tales.
Couldn’t my mom and Nana Victoria see for themselves that I was both mystified and frightened by life on Earth?”

“I have digressed, which is also the kind of writer I would become.”

“You’re not like anyone else, Billy – that’s what’s the matter with you,” Donna said.”

“In the sixties, dear Bill, we did not say ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ – we said ‘pitcher’ and ‘catcher’…”

“The operas I loved were nineteenth-century novels!”

“It’s Shakespearean, Bill; lots of the important stuff in Shakespeare happens offstage – you just hear about it.”

“For seven of the eight years he was president, Reagan would not say the AIDS word.”

“I didn’t try to say the penis word for Elaine. “Cock,” I said to her.”

“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t.”

“I actually remember my grandfather better as a woman than as a man.”

“Richard Abbott, who I thought knew everything, answered: “I don’t know, exactly.”

“Don’t worry, Bill,” Borkman told me. “I have Muriel and Richard in my pocket-back!” “In your back pocket—yes,” I said to the crafty deerstalker on skis.”

“Good evening, knocked-up faculty daughter. How are you managing now, you smelly little slut?”

“In addition to suffering her husband’s scathing portrayal of a shrewish wife and mother, Nana Victoria had to sit not more than two seats away from the transsexual wrestler!)”

“I saw an oxygen tank in the cluttered room—what had been Atkins’s “study,” as his son had explained, now converted for a deathwatch.”

“This prevented Elaine from making up any stories about whomever I was seeing at the time, man or woman. Therefore, no one was falsely accused of shitting in the bed.”

“Okay,” I said. I still have that photograph, though I don’t like remembering any part of the day Carlton Delacorte died.”

“I later found a bookstore on the Calle de Gravina—Libros, I believe it was called. (I’m not kidding, a bookstore called “Books.”)”

“(You shouldn’t guess about someone’s past; if you don’t see any evidence of it, a person’s past remains unknown to you.)”

“In short,I might take seriously the idea of service to my country when my country begins to demonstrate that it gives a shit about me!”

“Savor, don’t gorge.”

“I won’t pretend that it wasn’t gratifying to hear this, but I would rather have heard it privately; it wasn’t something I wanted to share with Tom Atkins.”

return to the home page

The God Box – Alex Sanchez

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a TGB‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

If you know a teenage boy who is scared to accept that he is gay and who also goes to an evangelical/charismatic/fundamentalist church, then this book would be a great help to him in sorting out what the Bible actually says and about how God is not some sadistic monster who is going to send him to Hell.

Paul, who is really Pablo, is from Mexico but he desperately wants to fit in with the ‘jocks’ in his school. He has a girlfriend but this is really a best friend thing with no passion though it serves as a cover for his real feelings which, he is convinced, is ‘a passing phase’. A relative pointedly asks him is he really loves her because, if not, he will hurt her. He is hiding before the ‘no sex before marriage’ rule to avoid any physical contact with her apart from a dutiful peck in the cheek.

He feels very threatened when an out gay Mexican, Manuel, joins his class. He feels that if he befriends him, as the new boy wants, he will be seen as gay by association.

The ‘God box’ of the title is a receptacle into which he puts written prayers. All his prayers seem to have been answered in the affirmative except two: that his mother wouldn’t die (which she did when he was aged twelve) and that he wouldn’t turn out gay.

The school’s bible study group is dominated by fundamentalists: the boys play ‘proof text volleyball’. Speaking about Manuel, some of the girls argue that Jesus accepted everyone as they were, went out of this way to befriend the marginalised and was non-judgmental. The boys insist, however, that whilst Jesus accepted people, he expected them to change their sinful ways. The biggest argument happens when Manuel turns up and the leader decides to abandon the prepared topic, the Sermon on the Mount, and studies Sodom and Gomorrah instead. Manuel quickly counters the homophobia of the group leadership by asking some very troubling questions about the text, suggesting that its meaning is very different from the way it is interpreted by fundamentalists. Paul goes home and starts to look up cross references and discovers that other mentions of Sodom in the bible are all about inhospitality: nothing to do with homosexuality. This is all well and good but I don’t think that even an intelligent teenager would be able to deconstruct biblical interpretation as easily as that in one night or reckon that thee advice to consider historical and cultural context in its writings might also apply to issues of sexuality. For most, it takes a study of biblical criticism at university level or at least a good, plain book written by someone who has. (Paul wants to be a minister but I doubt that his sort of church would send him to a seminary that did such biblical criticism.) I know one student who did coursework on this topic at A’ level (Philosophy and Ethics) who was heavily reliant on the work of Daniel Helminiac (so it came as no surprise when the author cites this book in his epilogue.) but he was exceptional.

In fact, it feels like the Lambda Literary Award-winning author is writing such a book, to deconstruct the bible, and couching it in a story form. But it makes for a very ‘wooden’, didactic story at this point.

Manuel is also a little too clever for his age. Deconstructing the Sodom story by asking if ‘all the men of the city’ wanted to ‘know’ the angels, that must mean that all the men were gay. What about their wives?  And he cites the epistle to the Romans where all things are declared to be ‘clean’ as trumping Old Testament purity laws about sexuality.

There are some authentic touches – as someone who lost a parent during my childhood, I sympathise with Paul’s fear that he might lose his father too, now that his mother has died.

There is also a damning indictment of schooling. The headmaster thinks of a Gay-Straight-Alliance cub as immoral. Teachers ignore homophobic comments and even overtly homophobic bullying. Some reviewers have questioned the need for a gay-bashing incident in the novel but it serves to show the serious consequences or schools which ignore the need for a homophobic bullying policy.

The ex-gay movement is exposed for what it is. Its representative’s body language gives away his unhappiness, though I doubt that a seventeen-year-old like Paul would be as good at reading body language as the book suggests. The ex-gay suggests that Paul wouldn’t be beaten up if he gave his ‘life to the Lord.’ Didn’t do much for Jesus, didn’t it?

The pastor thinks he is doing a good job by referring Paul to that movement but lacks insight into people. Pastoring that starts with the bible and not with people as they actually are isn’t true pastoring. When he says that the new ‘club’ at the school is a challenge to Christianity, I thought, so it jolly well should be – to that sort of Christianity anyway.

There are some good phrases, including the best retort I have ever heard to ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’: ‘Who made Steve then?’ There’s also the ridiculous bumper sticker: ‘The Bible says it I believe it. That settles it.’ Manuel has a good riposte to the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ cliché: So it’s OK to be left-handed as long as you use your right hand. People talk about ‘walking away from homosexuality’ but can you walk away from yourself? Best of all: “Did Jesus ever say,” Manuel continued, “I have come so that you can live life in a box?’ Or did he say, ‘I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’?”

The author shares other things with his characters apart from being Mexican, I suspect. How much of this book is semi-autobiographical? All this other books seem to have the same central theme: an out gay who threatens a closet case and a straight jock.

However, it is a moving read that will recapture, for many teenagers anxious about their religion and their sexuality, those strong self-doubts which they have grown out of.


“What’s unnatural is homophobia. Homo sapiens is the only species in all of nature that responds with hate to homosexuality.”

“You’re going to spend more time with yourself than with anyone else in your life. You want to spend that whole time fighting who you are?”

“How is love between two people a sin? Love isn’t about gender; it’s about two souls uniting.”

“Pablito, the Bible was meant to be a bridge, not a wedge. It’s the greatest love story ever told, about God’s enduring and unconditional love for his creation–love beyond all reason. To understand it, you have to read it with love as the standard. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Always remember that.”

“Anyone who expects a person to change something as private and personal as who they hold in their arms at night needs to change their own judgmental attitude.”

“Even if sexual orientation were a choice, aren’t we a country where we’re supposed to be free to pursue our happiness, whether we’re hetero-, homo-, bi-, trans-, or even a-sexual? To use [an analogy that homosexuality is a vice, like drinking], being antigay is like Prohibition, when a small group of busybodies thought no one should be allowed to drink.”

“I mean, think about [the phrase ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’] Isn’t it like saying, ‘I love left-handed people but hate that they’re left-handed.’ Is that really love? Or is that saying, ‘I’m willing to love you as I’d like you to be, not as you are’? Either God’s love is unconditional or it’s not.”

“Maybe [Sodom and Gomorrah] isn’t really about homosexuality, but about rape. If the angels had been female, and the men of Sodom said they wanted to ‘know’ them against their will, would people claim that the story shows heterosexuality is a sin?”

“I believe [the Bible] is meant to soften our hearts, not harden them.”

“Gay isn’t wrong or right. It just is. What’s wrong is hating yourself because of it. You’re going to spend more time with yourself than with anyone else in your life. You want to spend that whole time fighting who you are?”

“How is love between two people a sin? Love isn’t about gender; it’s about two souls uniting. But okay, let’s just suppose it is a sin. Then isn’t that between God and the people involved? Who are you to judge? […] Time and again, Jesus’ message was, ‘How can you say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is a log in your own?”

“My Grandma once told me ‘the Church should stay out of people’s pants’.”

“No, Manuel said firmly. “Gay isn’t wrong or right. It just is.”

“If you think the sea is blue and I think it’s green, why try to convince you?”

return to the home page

The Great Cock Hunt- Alex

We have not discussed this in the group but it reminds me why our group TGCHdoesn’t ‘do porn’ at our meetings, though we have joked about it.

I saw what must be one of the most ‘explicit’ American television series, based on this book and was so intrigued that I ordered the book.

The author cannot write to save his life: words like ‘like’, ‘totally’, ‘whatever’, ‘dinner and shit.’

He is very repetitive – he reminds you about people he introduced just three pages ago, just in case you’d forgotten. We are not allowed to forget that most American males are circumcised so we are treated top detailed descriptions of the use of lube; sadly we hear little about condoms – it must be true that younger people take risks where HIV is concerned.

There is very little plot, except for the multiple encounters being loosely pegged around a college reunion, like most porn I suppose: simply a ‘blow by blow’ (literally) account of endless couplings. The author seems to have worked his way through an entire tennis club, and when he isn’t doing anything with someone else then we are treated to his fantasy world.

I have no right to moralise – when I was his age, if I could get as much action as he did I would have gone for it. But to ruin a good friendship with a girl friend because she slept with someone that I wanted – well no – friendship is worth more than a hundred furtive encounters.

There are some funny bits: Lizzie thinks it’s bad for you to breathe in the fumes from the scented candle. “The chemicals are probably really bad for you,” she said in all seriousness as she was preparing to inhale tar and nicotine and countless carcinogens.

And a description of cunnilingus as ‘his carpet cleaning capabilities’ by which ‘he had her popping like popcorn in a furnace and melting like boiling butter in a matter of minutes.’

return to the home page