John Irving’s In One Person scans decades of intolerance
John Irving can command a room.
He’s not as tall as you’d expect, yet he’s somehow larger than life. And when he strolls up with his movie-star good looks and fit wrestler’s build, there’s a good deal of rubbernecking. It’s clear that passersby can’t quite place him, but they definitely know he’s someone. An actor? A former athlete? There’s some whispering, but everyone keeps their distance.
On this particular day, Irving’s command extends over the lounge of Vancouver’s Hotel Georgia, where he’s discussing his 13th and latest novel, In One Person, with the Georgia Straight.
He speaks with casual authority and measured diction. There’s a good deal of New England WASP in the New Hampshire native’s speech, yet there’s also something vaguely Shakespearean about the man who wrote such beloved novels as The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer For Owen Meany. At 70, Irving’s seasoned voice calls for a listener’s full attention.
“I was very deliberate in choosing a bisexual man as my main character,” Irving says of Billy Abbott, the hero-narrator of his latest work. “I wanted him to be distrusted by everybody and to be sensitive to how much of a sexual minority he was.”
Swept along by history, Billy serves as an accidental tour guide to the last half-century of gay (and bi, and lesbian, and transgender) struggle, from the closeted 1950s, through the radical 1960s, right up until today. It’s a story of an ongoing fight for equality, seen both through Billy’s eyes and through his complex relationships.
As it turns out, many of the themes in Billy’s story are mirrored in today’s more polarizing political issues: same-sex marriage, gays in the military, and transgenders in beauty pageants. It’s a fact that Irving finds amusing.
“It’s an irony to me that In One Person looks kind of timely. There isn’t anything timely about the way I work,” he says with a laugh, recounting how he began the novel 12 years ago, long before the venomous rancour of this year’s Republican presidential primaries. “If I look timely, it’s because of idiots like Mitt Romney.”
Still, sexual differences and the intolerance they arouse are themes Irving thought he was done with. “When I first thought of it, I’ll admit that I wasn’t very happy,” he says of In One Person’s genesis. “I remember thinking, wrongly or naively, when I finished Garp in 1978, ‘Well, I’ll never write about that again’—that the whole subject of sexual differences would go away.”
It didn’t, of course, and likely won’t anytime soon—even with Barack Obama’s recent support of gay marriage. “I think that the absurdity of his opposition made it a pretty safe gamble,” says Irving, who lives part of the year in Toronto. “I like the president, but I certainly don’t think of him as a liberal like I’m a liberal.” Obviously frustrated with the rightward tack—across both parties—in American politics, Irving sighs. “My party, the Democrats, have been apologizing for being liberal for a long time.”
Politics aside—and make no mistake, In One Person is in large part a political statement—Irving’s novel is about, as Billy puts it, having “crushes on the wrong people”. It’s something Irving can readily identify with.
“Growing up, I was attracted to just about everyone, and easily half of my sexual imaginings, or fantasies, were totally scary to me,” he recalls, noting the appeal of friends’ mothers, as well as of girls his own age. A secondary-school wrestler, Irving also candidly admits that there were “a couple of older guys on the wrestling team who I admired a little more than platonically”.
Although it turned out that Irving wound up liking girls exclusively, he’s quick to add, “I would be a hypocrite to overlook that early-teen, preteen part of my life when I was embarrassed and guilty and ashamed of all of it.”
While colliding desires and their consequences are an important part of In One Person, there’s also one giant, horrific, and inevitable tragedy that’s lurking in the shadows for many gay people of Billy’s generation.
“AIDS is the collision in waiting in this novel,” Irving says. “You the reader know it’s coming, more than Billy does. You know you’re going to get there.” The AIDS–focused passages—heartbreaking, emotional, and brimming with medical detail—aren’t easy to read, but they do provide a necessary and cautionary history.
Irving pauses, remembering friends he’s lost to the disease. “Jesus, if you had any kind of reality check or half a conscience, you had to realize that when these young men started dying that you hadn’t been any more sexually careful than they had. Just because of the luck of your partners or something, you were getting away with it and they weren’t.”
As Billy’s stepfather presciently tells him: “If you live long enough, Bill—it’s a world of epilogues.” And so it proves to be, but that’s not the novel’s central message.
In the end, In One Person is a heartfelt, uplifting, and even hopeful case for tolerance. Not just for sexual outsiders, but for everyone.
Luckily for us, it’s a case John Irving still cares enough about to keep making.