There was a period, in the early 90s, when I would’ve said that John Irving was one of my favourite writers. Like a great many people, I really enjoyed and rated The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany enough to check out all of the other novels and I remember enjoying The Cider House Rules and The 158 Pound Marriage and The Water Method Man enough to check out the new novels as they appeared. I can’t say as I remember a dropping off in my interest (my wife tells me that I didn’t particularly enjoy reading The Fourth Hand although I can’t remember what it was that bothered me about it) but I do know I wasn’t fond of My Movie Business, a curmudgeonly memoir, and I hit a real brick wall with Until I Find You, a novel I was unable to get through. I think part of it was the digressive nature of his storytelling (like Stephen King, Irving is fond of communities and he likes to treat us to asides in which we learn more than we need to, perhaps, about peripheral characters) and part of it was the similarity of his protagonists (Irving has the market cornered on wrestlers with sexual peculiarities who become writers or writers with sexual peculiarities who become wrestlers) and part of it was what I perceived to be overt sentimentality (cribbed from Dickens, or at least a perception of Dickens). Since Until I Find You, I pick up Irving novels reluctantly, expecting the disappointment that tends to reside like mildew in the books of a writer you’ve simply outgrown (although we did like Last Night in Twisted River).
In One Person, Irving’s thirteenth novel, tells the story of William ‘Billy’ Abbott, raised in the town of First Sister, Vermont sans a father (as Irving himself was apparently sans a father), and involved from an early age in the life of the local theatre (his mother is the prompter, his aunt and his grandfather regularly take roles in the plays). Introduced to books via his stepfather Richard – and the mysterious local librarian Miss Frost – Billy uses literature, at first, to come to terms with what he sees as ‘unhealthy crushes’, on Miss Frost, on his friend’s mother and on a boy called Kittredge. The web of secrets in which Billy is raised, particularly concerning his errant father’s history as a ‘womaniser’, gradually give way to an understanding that Billy himself is a bisexual. Irving deftly handles a shifting retrospective overview (Billy is writing as an old man) that allows us to see Billy’s childhood filtered through his first trip to Europe, fledgling relationships (with a female operatic understudy, with a beautiful transgender model, with a screenwriter in LA) and the onset of AIDs. Undoubtedly, the meat of the book is to be found in Billy’s adolescence, his part in a vague love triangle and his briefly consummated affair with Miss Frost – but it is the fatal flowering of the AIDs epidemic that gives the book its heart (and the way in which certain characters suffer really tempersIrving’s sentimentality). Beyond childhood, Billy’s life and the life of a great many characters in the book is best viewed as an epilogue – the last third of the book, from a chapter called ‘A World of Epilogues’ on, is one long goodbye.
In One Person is, for this reader, a John Irving that deserves a thumb’s up, albeit with caveats. There is a sense that Irving is a writer who has virtually spent his life in thrall to David Copperfield (each of his books is essentially a rites of passage involving the intellectual and sexual growth of a Copperfield manqué). He is also a writer who is unafraid of using the same types over and over again (Billy is a writer who acknowledges his own sexual peculiarities and eventually pursues a hobby wrestling). The point comes maybe three quarters of the way through In One Person when I wondered whether every character was going to become a writer. Billy is certainly a character who likes to surround himself with other writers. Irving could also do with a little more pruning from his editor (there are a handful of times during In One Person when we are told the same story two or three times, the repetition even acknowledged at some points such as when Billy puts his Grandfather Harry in a home). Conversely, Irving is also too neat a writer. Billy, we learn early in the book, is a great fan of Great Expectations but Irving could never write a book like Great Expectations. Ambiguity and irresolution are not home to John Irving. He also grandly over-uses exclamation marks.
Caveats aside, though, In One Person is at bottom a sweetly elegiac portrait of a bisexual, someone never entirely trusted by either the men or the women he is involved with. Although there is a lot of death in the novel, it is leavened by a necessary lightness of touch – think Edmund White by way of Armistead Maupin. Irving eschews what a writer like, say, Philip Roth would do; by which I mean to say that In One Person is less a surgical dissection of what it is (or was) to be gay or bisexual or transgender in the US over the last thirty or forty years than it is a long plea for tolerance. If there’s one thing the world could always do with more of, it’s tolerance.
Any Cop?: It’s not beyond the realms of feasibility thatIrving’s latest could rattle a few cages (particularly in theUS where gay marriage, for instance, continues to be a hot potato). It’s certainly a well-written, enjoyable and affecting novel and a better read than I expected.