Book Review: In One Person
John Irving's Greatest Hits
What keeps bringing me back to John Irving’s novels is his unique style of storytelling. His stories are rarely linear, but rather employ foreshadowing and hindsight to reveal the rippling effect of important moments in his characters’ lives.
The plots may unfold in a generally chronological fashion, but when it comes to significant moments, Irving builds anticipation by jumping over the pivotal incident to show the aftermath before circling back around to describe what actually happens. It underscores the sense that life’s crises have long lasting repercussions in our lives.
My favorite Irving novel is A Prayer for Owen Meany. Also up there are The Cider House Rules, A Widow for One Year, and of course, The World According to Garp. In each of these novels, he explores a specific theme from every imaginable angle – from sexual outlaws to abortion, from storytelling to heroism and sacrifice.
In One Person returns to the theme of the sexual outlaw: Billy Abbott is bisexual, and over the course of his life, he must determine what his sexual identity means for himself. From an early age, he finds that he has crushes on all the wrong people. None of it makes sense for him, except that he admits his attraction to both women and men. As he grows older, he finds that people who are transgender probably attract him the most.
As typical in an Irving novel, Billy grows up in New England (First Sister, VT, to be specific) and attends an all-male boarding school (Favorite River Academy). He is surrounded by quirky and sometimes outsized personalities. There is his cross-dressing grandfather, his Aunt Muriel with her clarion voice, the Norwegian theatre director, and his heartthrob stepfather Richard.
There is also his best friend, Elaine, whose minimally developed breasts are a source of fascination for Billy. And there is the toxically male wrestler, Kittredge (who is more than a passing nod to Steerforth from David Copperfield).
Over the course of the novel, Billy discovers that he wants to be a writer – and later as an adult, he writes novels about sexual outlaws. Along the way, he has various relationships with men and women, who teach him the imperativeness of being the truest version of yourself, no matter how that is defined.
The most heartbreaking section of the novel covers the AIDS epidemic. Billy watches many friends and lovers succumb to the disease, under the government’s heartless denial of the crisis. In his pull-no-punches prose, Irving describes the various forms that the disease takes, and how hopeless Billy and his friends feel in the face of inevitable death.
I wanted to like In One Person more than I did. It certainly reads like a John Irving novel, but more like a Greatest Hits than an original tale. There is the small town atmosphere of New England, the boarding school, the wrestling, the theatre, and the writing life that have appeared in so many other Irving books. And many supporting characters feel like repertory actors who have wandered in from other stories: They play their accustomed parts and nothing more. In some cases, they stagnate into archetypes rather than grow in any discernible fashion. For example, Billy’s mother grows increasingly bitter and taciturn, and while the reasons for it are given, it doesn’t generate any sense of empathy from Billy himself. He and his mother are all but estranged, but to what purpose?
My biggest complaint is the role that cis-women are relegated to. Most of the women come across as shrill, angry, bitter, and unsympathetic. Much of the support which Billy experiences comes from the cis-males and transgender females he encounters. Given that the story takes place in the 1950s and 60s, they are a surprisingly enlightened lot when it comes to Billy’s bisexuality. In fact, one of the most important persons to Billy is the town librarian, and when her story is revealed, it is the men of the town who champion her rather than any of the other women.
Also, the fact that Billy is bisexual rather than hetero- or homosexual is an important aspect of his identity. While he has relationships with various people, there is seemingly more weight given to his male partnerships. Anytime it is mentioned that he is in love with a cis-woman, it is rather tossed off as an effort to underscore his bisexuality. I never got a sense that these female partners had any long lasting impact on his life.
It is unlike Irving to favor one gender over the other, so I wonder if I’m missing something. I found myself wanting to know more about Billy’s mother, his Aunt Muriel, and Kittredge’s mother. They play their roles from a marginalized position, while the men (e.g., Billy’s grandfather and stepfather) are much more actively engaged in his development.
Overall, In One Person boldly examines sexual identity in its many and varied forms. And it gives you what you expect from a John Irving tale. But in the end, I found the scenarios recycled from earlier novels, and the characters as either underdeveloped or not terribly sympathetic. Even Billy as the narrator, at times, comes across as not very likable.
It is not Irving's worst novel; it's just not one of his best.