If you’re looking for a book to take on vacation, read by the pool or browse on the beach, John Irving’s “In One Person” is a mid-summer day (or night’s) dream. Tracing the trials and tribulations of Billy Abbott as he struggles to come of age, the bulk of the book deals with his confusing sexual awakening when he begins to develop “crushes on the wrong people” during the ’50s and ’60s at a second-rate, all-boys prep school in Vermont. A valentine to language, literature and theater, the captivating novel has plot turns — family secrets, concealed identities and even a modern-day, self-inflicted poisoning — that are positively Shakespearean.
Published by Simon & Schuster, “In One Person” is a moving and often funny novel about tolerance (or intolerance, as the case may be) of other people whose approaches to life and sexual identity may not be as conventional as mainstream America’s. The pages are populated with a cast of cross-dressers, transgenders, bisexuals, gays and lesbians who comprise what the book jacket describes as a “theatrical cast of characters who defy category and convention.”
Billy’s grandfather, for example, is the town’s well-liked lumberman who upholds the Shakespearean tradition of men performing women’s roles when he appears onstage at the community theater. The town librarian, an object of Billy’s undying (and obsessive) affection, is an ex-wrestling champ who returns to his hometown to live as a woman and take care of his mother. Another of Billy’s crushes — Kittredge, an all- American jock — seems to have a weird psycho-sexual relationship with his mysterious mother. The penchants and proclivities of Irving’s characters are surprisingly accepted, overlooked or — at the very least — tolerated in the tiny town of First Sister. A self-confirmed heterosexual, Irving writes with amazing insight to these characters using both humor and poignancy. His protagonist is decidedly bisexual, an orientation that he describes with truth and realism.
“My very existence as a bisexual was not welcomed by my gay friends; they either refused to believe that I REALLY liked women, or they felt I was somehow dishonest (or hedging my bets) about being gay,” the narrator reveals in one passage, exposing some intolerance within the LGBT community itself.
Granted, most of Billy’s female lovers have masculine traits: hairy armpits, square jaws, flat chests and men’s clothing. Irving (“The World According to Garp”) practices gender reassignment as deftly as a plastic surgeon. His male characters maintain their masculinity but express themselves in ways that might seem more traditionally feminine and vice versa. In fact, the male characters in the novel are more accepting and open-minded about Billy’s sexuality than some of the women, a few of whom show an extreme prejudice.
Released on the heels of President Obama’s affirmative stance on same-sex marriage,
Irving’s 13th novel is extremely timely with its theme of tolerance and gay equality; he also touches on hot-button issues such as abortion and bullying. Later in the book, he resurrects the Reagan-era AIDS epidemic, including some harrowing deathbed scenes, perhaps to remind readers that much work still remains today to fight the disease. And it seems more than a coincidence that the book is set in Vermont, the country’s first state to legitimize gay marriage legally. By the end of the book, Irving reminds readers how far the LGBT community has come in gaining acceptance during one man’s lifetime.
Despite Irving’s style, which can be distractingly parenthetical and repetitive, what makes “In One Person” a true work of art are the clever literary allusions the author employs to provide perspective and in some cases to drive the plot. He has chosen to quote authors and playwrights who were either gay, bisexual; who created characters who struggled with homo- or bisexuality; or whose own sexuality continues to be a source of speculation: Dickens (some scholars believe the relationship between Pip and Herbert in “Great Expectations” is homosexual) Ibsen, Rilke (who spent his childhood dressed by his mother in girl’s clothes), Goethe, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin and, of course, The Bard. What keeps you turning the pages are mounting mysteries, which are more compelling than anything Agatha Christie ever wrote.
Summer is a busy time for publishing as people fill extra leisure time by reading. If you come across “In One Person” at your bookstore or online and ask the question, “To read or not to read?” the answer is a resounding MUST read.