In One Person
“. . . a deeply compassionate, politically defiant, and surprisingly underwhelming novel, as provocative as it is inevitable.”
After 13 novels and more than 40 years, John Irving is among our most beloved literary authors—and our most predictable.
The reason for his popularity isn’t hard to grasp: He writes muscular, sweeping stories with large themes and zany casts of characters whom he always portrays with the deepest empathy.
His narrative voice is instantly recognizable; as a disciple and unapologetic practitioner of the Dickensian school of storytelling, his novels are constructions, deliberately paced and meticulously assembled. (Recall his well-known writing technique of always beginning with the final sentence and writing toward it, using it as a road map for the rest of the novel.)
Mr. Irving’s books do feel like authoritative statements, but his work of late has lost any sense of spontaneity—a quality his early novels held in spades—and have too often felt more like inexorable marches toward fated conclusions.
In One Person, Mr. Irving’s latest, is another novel written squarely in the 19th century tradition, unabashedly melodramatic and somewhat preachy, but bighearted and inclusive.
It is about the sexual awakening of Billy Abbott, a bisexual coming of age in small-town First Sister, Vermont, in the 1950s, and documents his path toward acceptance through Vienna and San Francisco, culminating with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s in New York City.
When we first meet Billy, he is concerned that he has begun to develop “crushes on the wrong people”: first the town librarian, a tall and sturdily-built Miss Frost, then his stepfather Richard, later a speech therapist and her daughter Elaine, and eventually the abrasive but beautiful wrestler Kittredge (whom Elaine also adores).
Calling himself a “sexual suspect”—an intentional callback to The World According to Garp—Billy knows what giving in to such temptations could mean:
“If an unwanted pregnancy was the ‘abyss’ that an intrepid girl could fall into . . . surely the abyss for a boy like me was to succumb to homosexual activity. In such love lay madness; in acting out my most dire imaginings, I would certainly descend to the bottomless pit of the universe of desire.”
Billy’s efforts to reconcile his desires with what is expected of him forms the novel’s core conflict, as seen in the Shakespearean couplet that serves as the novel’s epigram: “Thus play I in one person many people / And none contented.”
It is Miss Frost who does the most to guide Billy on the right path, first by introducing books that speak to his confusion about his infatuations, and later on a more personal level, in a reveal that will come as little surprise to anyone but the innocent and naive Billy.
As Billy gets older and leaves his hometown, the novel begins to hit its stride. There are fewer diversions and Billy’s narration, through Mr. Irving, becomes more passionate, never more so than in the two chapters near the end chronicling the AIDS epidemic. A staggering number of supporting characters will be victimized by the disease, and Mr. Irving does not flinch from describing its effects, leaving the reader infuriated and heartbroken.
In One Person contains the best and worst tendencies of John Irving the novelist. It contains all his hallmarks: wrestling, absent fathers, New England prep school upbringing, an author as narrator—everything, really, except the bears (who nonetheless appear in human form).
Emotionally generous and passionate, it treats its characters—including transsexuals, cross dressers, and incest survivors—with all the respect one would expect from an author who took on abortion in The Cider House Rules.
But there is still the nagging feeling (at least to anyone who’s read several John Irving novels) that we have heard this all before, that one again Mr. Irving has taken his key ingredients and wrung one more tale from them.
In One Person seems to lack the vitality and dark humor of his most revered works, Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, despite its plea for sexual tolerance that couldn’t be timelier. This novel is thus a deeply compassionate, politically defiant, and surprisingly underwhelming novel, as provocative as it is inevitable.