John Irving's In One Person is a graceful portrayal of a sexual outsider
In One Person
By John Irving. Alfred A. Knopf, 427 pp, hardcover
For much of his career, the “sexual suspect” has been John Irving’s stock-in-trade, with the rich landscape of his novels populated by adulterers, nonpractising homosexuals, bear-suit-wearing lesbians, swingers, transsexual football players, and recurrent unwed mothers.
Billy Abbott, the narrator-hero of Irving’s 13th and latest novel, In One Person, takes the concept one step further: as a bisexual, he’s not only at odds with the straight world, he’s eyed with suspicion by gays, lesbians, and sexual outsiders of all stripes.
When the teenage Abbott—already gifted with a familial tendency toward cross-dressing—is cast as the androgynous Ariel in an amateur production of The Tempest, it’s clear that his future is preordained. It’s an often lonely path, but not one without intensity, as the story’s half-century scope sweeps Abbott from the closeted 1950s through Stonewall, the AIDS horrors of the 1980s, and on to modern day.
At heart, however, the novel’s real story is the struggle for love, acceptance, and a worthwhile existence. With a family that can be alternately supportive and repressive, and a series of friends and lovers (often a blurry distinction) who are likewise helpful and stifling, Abbott makes a life of having “crushes on the wrong people”. One such crush, on his hometown librarian, is transformative: it forges resilience, but also winds up casting a long shadow over his romantic, and intellectual, life.
While elements of In One Person may be familiar, indeed comforting, to devotees of earlier Irving works such as The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany—New England, prep school, an absent father, wrestling—the 70-year-old author has shuffled them into something altogether new and arguably more politically charged than anything he’s previously written.
What hasn’t changed is the exceptional quality and complexity of Irving’s writing, a profoundly evocative prose style that’s thoughtful, shocking, comic, tender, and tragic—sometimes simultaneously. With a seemingly effortless grace, he captures both the gauzy innocence of youth and the heartbreaking lost promise of adulthood.
In One Person is an ambitious, passionate, and thoroughly persuasive tribute to tolerance. And, like Billy Abbott himself, absolutely worthwhile.
John Irving will discuss his new novel at 7:30 p.m. next Friday (May 18) at Capilano University, as part of the Cap Speakers Series.