In one person
"A compelling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love - tormented, funny, and affecting - and an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences. Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character, tells the tragicomic story (lasting more than half a century) of his life as a 'sexual suspect', a phrase first used by John Irving in 1978 - in his landmark novel of 'terminal cases', The World According to Garp."
I’ve wanted to write about John Irving ever since starting this blog. I’ve been a massive fan of his work for just under four years, after being introduced to him through my lecturer at college. I initially dived in to The Cider House Rules and didn’t come up for air until I’d read about five of his novels. Since then I’ve read every novel of his with one exception (Until I find You).
In one person, is Irving’s latest and is up there with his finest. I always struggle, when asked, to recant the plot of an Irving novel. You’re never able to simply explain that character A must do action B to cause result C. Instead, Irving presents us with a character and takes us through the characters life, usually from start to finish. Birth to Death.
In this case, the character he introduces us to is Bill Abbot. A student at an all boys school, struggling to come to terms with his bisexuality and his infatuations with both the local Librarian Miss Frost and Wrestling team captain Jacques Kittredge.
As his life unfolds we see his acceptance of who he is and his life as an openly bisexual man leading up to tragic scenes as he watches many of his friends die as a result of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s.
These later chapters are deeply emotional and are inspired by some of Irving’s personal experiences. This shows in the text and these scenes feel truly heart breaking. The earlier chapters feel much warmer as Bill comes of age and finds himself. Irving’s works are famous for their large casts and this is no different, providing us a wealth of loveable and very real characters, from the wrestler Delacorte who constantly rinses his mouth with water from a paper cup and struggles constantly to shed weight to stay on the team to Bill’s eccentric cross dressing, lumberjack Grandfather.
Several reviewers criticised the novel when it was released, claiming Bill Abbot is not as fully realised a character as his predecessors in Irving’s other novels, though, while I can see their point, I never found this to be a problem and I found Bill to be a very endearing character, especially in the early chapters.
The only real problems I had with the novel were slight. I found it difficult to swallow the idea that every boy Bill met at school ended up being either gay or a transvestite. While homosexuality is by no means a rare occurrence, it seemed unlikely that the entire student body of Favourite River Academy would be gay.
Likewise, when Bill reveals his homosexual urges, that he is met with little resistance seemed unusual. Certainly he is sent to counselling with a doctor who believes homosexuality must be “cured”, but this is brief and little else is made of it.
While Bill’s family are tolerant, I would expect more resistance from those outside his bloodline, after all this is the 1950’s when it wasn’t uncommon for homosexuality to be treated with electro-shock therapy.
Those misgivings were minor however and never spoiled what was a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Readers will find humour and heart ache in equal measure and a brilliant cast that can sit proudly amongst Irving’s greatest.