In the press notes for In One Person, John Irving seems sour about how his critical reputation has suffered since the publication of 1989’s A Prayer For Owen Meany. In an interview, he grouses about how his first five novels—including The World According To Garp, the book that has the best chance of outliving him—aren’t nearly as technically well-written as the eight that followed. And it’s easy to see where Irving might be tired of the way his new novels are greeted with respectful notices, but also the constant sense that his most relevant work lies behind him in the late ’70s and ’80s, when he was one of the two or three most important writers in America.
In One Person not only attempts to recapture some of that importance, as an explicitly political novel about the LGBT rights movement, it also continues a late-career resurgence, which included 2009’s Last Night In Twisted River, one of his finest books. (Not coincidentally, River is in part about an author attempting to live up to his glory days in the late ’70s and 1980s.)
National and global events over the last few decades have forced a new structure onto Irving’s favorite subject, the life and times of the Baby Boom. The generation’s story now necessarily concludes with dark trials and tragedies, but leaves the characters with a small but profound sense of hope. But where Twisted River took as its concluding backdrop American foreign policy after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, In One Person dissects the cruel, arbitrary nature of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s. The last third of the book, which deals with the death and destruction wrought by the HIV virus, is among the best writing of Irving’s career. It just takes a while to get there.
Irving’s story is yet another bildungsroman about a young New Englander surrounded by quirky characters in a small-town and prep-school setting. In this case, the protagonist is Billy Abbott (William when he becomes a published author), a young man who opens the novel with the disquieting realization that he has crushes on women and men—and every stop of the way between the two genders. Though Irving sets up the idea that people of all sexualities have a certain reticence about bisexuals—gay men believe they’re in denial about their homosexuality, while straight women fear a bisexual man might leave them for a woman or a man—he doesn’t do much with the topic. Billy has relationships with men and women alike; some, he details over the course of a few pages, while others, he teases out over the whole novel. Irving revisits nearly every favorite trope in his wheelhouse (except bears), discussing wrestling, writing, and living in Vienna, alongside frank discussions of sexual activity and preferences. (Readers who don’t know what “intercrural sex” is will know well by the end of the novel.)
The first two-thirds of In One Person make up the usual coming-of-age tale, which is decent, as such stories go. The book is curiously structured, with Irving jumping forward in time in the middle of some anecdote from Billy’s adolescence, just so he can plant some breadcrumbs for readers to pick up on later. These jaunts into the story’s future often lack narrative motivation, and occasionally just seem to be there to break up some of the longer stories from Billy’s past. In addition, there’s the usual clutter of incidents and plot conveniences that have made some of Irving’s later work feel overstuffed. (It makes sense that the young Billy wouldn’t realize a key character was a man who identifies as a woman, but why wouldn’t his much older stepfather, particularly when the character was a former wrestler, and is still built like one?)
Irving stuffs In One Person with people of all manner of sexualities, and while it’s refreshing to see this many well-written and fully realized gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters on the page, it also slightly beggars belief that one small Vermont town could hide so many closeted folk. One of the book’s central devices is that the town theater relies on the community’s men to play female roles—some of the old Irving quirkiness returning—and while Irving believably uses this device to examine how, say, Billy’s grandfather was unable to properly express his gay and transgender attributes because of the generation he was born into, it feels a little stilted to see so many of the other characters who set foot onstage—as men or women—grappling with their own sexualities.
Person also has a problem with female characters, in that most of the ones seen here are hateful, bigoted shrews who stand in the way of tolerant men who are more than willing to let people of all sexualities live as they wish. In particular, the women in Billy’s family are dark, troubled figures who feel wronged by the men in their lives, and take that hatred out on the LGBT people around them. Since the novel is filtered through Billy’s narration, it’s plausible he would strain so much to see the good in his mother, but the novel suffers in that it only has one female character Billy feels any empathy for at all—his best friend, Elaine.
Yet these problems fall away compared to the novel’s considerable strengths. The first two-thirds are full of humor and warmth, even when Billy is confronting the sorts of horrific prejudice that will follow him his whole life. They’re also packed with terrific characters, and the sort of sprawling, picaresque plot structure only Irving seems to be attempting any more in the world of literary fiction.
And the novel’s last 150 pages are as good as anything Irving’s ever written, as first Vietnam, then AIDS arrive to wipe out much of the novel’s supporting cast in horrifying detail. Irving’s protagonists are often detached to a fault—they’re all writers and observers, after all—but In One Person makes devastatingly clear how much tragedy exists in a detached life. Billy has no significant attachments, and he’s marked by death at all times. Yet in spite of the shadows looming over the closing chapters, Irving closes the novel on a few moments of impossible hope and grace. Nothing is ever so dark that good people can’t make the world better by turning on more lights, he suggests, and that makes In One Person’s conclusion a thing of beauty.