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Since I first discovered John Irving while I was in college, with his breakout novel, The World According to Garp, I’ve thought of him as a man’s man and a writer who details the lives of men with exquisite precision. Irving’s latest novel, In One Person (Simon & Schuster)–one of his best and one of his most provocative–proves I was right. This book plumbs the psyche of a man, Billy Abbott, over the course of a half century. It is by turns humorous and poignant, but it is always telling.
Some critics have presumed that In One Person is Irving’s own story, but in a series of interviews the author has made clear that it’s not. Yet at the same time he’s also declared that he drew on his own experiences–the range of sexual feelings he had as a young man–for his friends’ mothers, girls he liked, boys he wrestled with.
The interviews dovetail neatly with the book because they underscore the verisimilitude of Irving’s protagonist’s memory: Billy is looking back on his life from an age close to Irving’s seven decades and he’s pin-pointing the incidents that led him to his fully realized sexual self, starting with his sexual awakening as a precocious 13-year-old.
In One Person is definitely one of Irving’s most provocative books, perhaps as provocative now as Garp was when it debuted. From the opening paragraphs to the dramatic ending, this is a novel that propels the reader forward even as–or perhaps because–the narrator is looking back over his life. Billy is declarative right from the outset when he states, “We are formed by what we desire.” And from the vantage point of his small town (later Billy will travel to own the world, before returning), Billy desires everything.
As with some of Irving’s other books, a niggling thought enters one’s mind along the narrative journey, though: How reliable a narrator is Billy Abbott? Irving has long been a master of the unreliable narrator. Like Truman Capote, whose poignancy and humor he shares, Irving often sets up the reader with a protagonist in which we utterly believe, only to discover he’s not quite as believable as we thought.
This book is Proustian in how it details Billy’s sexual obsessiveness, and while it has some of Proust’s lyricism (thought not, thank goodness, the three-paragraph sentences), it also borrows its more modern edge from Cheever and for outrageousness, Hubert Selby, Jr. And yet–still pure Irving, right from the opening pages where we discover that Billy was a teenager with instant erections for a plethora of people, including the town librarian, Miss Frost.
There’s little unusual about a young boy’s attraction for the sexy librarian in a small town like First Sister, Vermont. Except Miss Frost is transgender–as Billy explains later after he has slept with her, Miss Frost is a woman with a penis.
As much as In One Person is about one man’s sexual journey, it is also about the life of a writer. One of the key influences on Billy’s young life is Miss Frost–not just on his penis (or “penith,” as he says, with his slight lisp), but on his literary inspiration and aspiration. Billy begins with Dickens–Irving’s repetitive favorite, Great Expectations. But under Miss Frost’s tutelage (because she offers him books to help him understand himself and his sexuality as well as broaden his reading landscape, such as Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room when Billy confesses an attraction for a fellow wrestler at school), Billy discovers something far more important: his desire to be a writer.
The parallel stories in the novel are these: Billy’s quest for sexual satisfaction and his quest to be a writer. He’s successful as a writer, but his sexual proclivities cause him far more conflicts than his writer’s life.
Irving tries to put the lie to a common perception about bisexuality in this novel: the idea that bisexuals are liars, fence-sitters, duplicitous queers who can’t commit to either gender. Billy is definitively bisexual. His attraction to both women and men is clarifying of who he is and also forges some of his greatest bonds–and pain.
Some will determine to read Billy as a closet case who simply wasn’t able to come out in the era when he first discovers his sexuality. But that simply isn’t the case. Billy’s grandfather Harry is a cross-dresser and his comfort with his love of women’s clothes and being in them makes him equally comfortable with Billy’s choices, even though Harry is neither bisexual nor gay.
Billy’s affair with Miss Frost is a metaphor for his life and also reinforces the title: He loves both women and men. In Miss Frost, he may have the perfect lover–a woman with a penis. But as he traverses the next six decades (the novel begins in 1953 and ends in 2010), he falls in and out of love and bed with women (his best friend, Elaine, is a frequent partner) and men (he never loses his affection for those wrestlers, despite the brutality of his nemesis, the viciously hetero Kittredge).
Irving is tough on the anti-bisexual meme. Billy faces the hostility of the “they’re fence-sitters,” particularly in the years after Stonewall and during the novel’s most poignant section, the peak AIDS years in the 1980s. Irvingseems clear, however: bisexual, yes, down low, no. Billy encounters many men having sex with other men during this period, but they are dishonest liars, going home to unknowing wives. One of these men, Billy’s friend Tom, infects his wife. The consequences, not surprisingly, are tragic, and Tom’s children’s lives are destroyed.
As always, Irving styles his male characters with depth and complexity and verve. They feel love and pain, despair and joy.
The women, however, as in most of Irving’s novels, are distressingly stereotypical–they trend toward viciousness or hysteria or are just standard issue harridans. (Billy’s lesbian cousin is just horrid.) The most lovely and loving woman in the book is Miss Frost–the woman who began her life as a man. This is the book’s one real flaw, the dearth of fully realized female characters. But then Irving is, and always has been, a man’s man–his primary audience is men. He’s talking to men about themselves, their experiences and their frequent duplicities. It’s Irving’s, if not Billy’s, blazing honesty that comes through with a truly amazing fierceness. This is a book to be read, enjoyed, savored and occasionally, thrown against the wall. For lovers of Irving as well as neophytes.
In One Person
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 9781451664126, 448 pp.