In One Person, a Novel

By John Irving

Simon & Schuster | 2012 | 426 pages | $28.00

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

What a strange book In One Person is -- I can’t say I was terribly fond of it or found it all that interesting. I was going to say that it’s all about sex, but it’s not all about sex; it’s all about sexual identity, particularly those who, if men, would rather be women. As such, it’s a rather tortured story and not all that sexy. Claustrophobic is the word that comes to mind to describe it.

In One Person is John Irving’s thirteenth novel. In addition to writing the world famous best seller The World According to Garp in 1980, he has, overall, been publishing novels for 32 years. Other notable books are The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), The Cider House Rules (2000), and A Widow for a Year (2004).

I particularly enjoyed reading A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I just loved the movie version of The Cider House Rules when the character played by Michael Caine says to the orphans, “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”      If John Irving isn’t a great American novelist, in the sense that Saul Bellow, John Updike and Phillip Roth are, he still deserves a place among the United States’ literary lions. His method of creating a cast of characters (who usually live in a small town in New England) and writing about them in such a way that draws you into their story is unique.

Mr. Irving is interested in social justice. A Prayer for Owen Meany is about enduring friendship at the time when the Viet Nam War was having its most divisive effect on the people in the United States. The cause addressed in In One Person is acceptance of those whose sexual identity is different than the norm -- homosexuals, transgender people and bisexuals.

The narrator is a bisexual young man, Billy, who grows up in a family of eccentrics in the fictitious town of First Sister, Vermont. His grandfather, Harry, owns a lumber mill but is given to cross-dressing – he loves to play various female roles in the plays at the First Sister Player Theater.

Bill’s mother is the prompter at the theater. Some time passes before Billy finds out that his absent father, William Francis Dean, was not the philanderer he supposed him to be, but rather a transsexual. His mother marries Richard Abbott, who adopts Billy and serves as a stabilizing influence for him and his mother.

At the age of 13 or 14, Bill falls in love for the first time -- with Miss Frost, the librarian at the First Sister Public Library. His description of her should have tipped us off -- she’s a tall person with broad shoulders, large hands and modest-sized breasts. (Remember in The Crying Game our clue that Di may not be a woman was the largeness of her hands.)

When Billy tells Miss Frost that he’s interested in reading books about people who have “crushes on the wrong people,” she indoctrinates him into Tom Jones, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Later she gives him Great Expectations.

His feelings for Miss Frost are requited and later in the book Billy and she have a short-lived affair, which costs Miss Frost her job (this is a conservative town in Vermont). Miss Frost is a worthwhile person and a transsexual. She remains Billy’s foremost love.

Billy attends the Favorite River Academy in First Sister, where he becomes friends with Elaine, a girl with a clarion voice who becomes impregnated by one of the book’s most enigmatic characters, Kittredge, a wrestler who is also something of a bully.

Elaine is whisked off to Europe for an abortion by Kittredge’s mother. (No one --not Kittredge, nor Elaine, nor the mother -- expresses any remorse that the life of the unborn baby has been taken, but then this is the 1960’s. When I lived in the Bay Area during this time people thought little of having abortions.

Billy and Elaine’s friendship endures the vicissitudes of outrageous fortune. At the end of the book we find that Kittredge, too, is a transsexual.

Mr. Irving makes use of extensive literary allusions, particularly those from Shakespeare. Most of the plays Richard directs and Harry acts in are those of Shakespeare.

My favorite part of the book is when Billy is touring Europe with his homosexual friend Tom. He is reading Madame Bovary aloud to Tom. This is Tom’s first sexual adventure and he is jealous of Emma Bovary: “…I couldn’t read Madame Bovary to myself; I was permitted to read that novel only if I read every word of it aloud to Tom Atkins…What an awful way to read that wonderful novel -- out loud to Tom Atkins, who feared infidelity even as the first sexual adventure of his young life was just getting started! The aversion Atkins felt for Emma’s adultery was akin to his gag reflex at the vagina word; yet well before Emma’s descent into infidelity, poor Tom was revolted by her -- the description of ‘her satin slippers, with their soles yellowed from the beeswax on the dance-floor’ disgusted him. ’Who cares about that sickening woman’s feet?’ Atkins cried.”

Years later, when Tom is married, living with his family in New Jersey and dying from AIDS, Billy and Elaine visit him. This is the 1980s, when it seemed that gay men were enduring periods of grotesque illness and dropping like flies. So many of the characters from In One Person, including Kittredge, die during this time that I feared only Billy and Elaine would be left at the book’s end.

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