Book review

‘In one person’ by John Irving

The Times

April 28, 2012


You know who would benefit from one-way tickets to John Irving’s world? Certain church leaders, as well as members of the Coalition For Marriage and, in Irving’s US, those Republican presidential hopefuls who have distinguished themselves by obstructing civil rights for lesbians and gay men.

IrvingWorld would rock them, because in books including The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire and his latest (thirteenth) novel, In One Person, Irving does not plead for tolerance or browbeat for understanding. He does something more radical: he expects you to take his characters for who they are. They are too individual for anything so confining as labels. Gender and sexuality are both fluid in IrvingWorld. This wonderful novel is an epic, moving survey of 70 years of sexual revolution.

In One Person is an ingenious title: in one person, the book elucidates, are the influences of many people, there are many aspects of one identity. Its protagonist, Billy Abbott, is bisexual and grows up sexually fascinated by pictures of college wrestlers, before embarking on relationships with women, then men. His first love is a deceptively prim librarian, Miss Frost, whose true identity and strength becomes the book’s most resonant echo. Billy’s other love, obsession even, is his school’s best wrestler, the handsome, cruel and charismatic Kittredge. Irving, a former wrestler himself, writes sensually and proudly about the sport. Kittredge puts Billy in headlocks and mocks him, but is also fascinated by him.

Billy’s bravery is elicited and reflected by the novel’s two transsexual heroines from two different eras. It is not autobio- graphical, but the author recently said that he was attracted to his friends’ mothers, girls his own age, and — at the all-boys’ school he attended where he was on the wrestling team — to certain team-mates. “Easily two-thirds of my sexual fantasies frightened me. My first girlfriend was so afraid of getting pregnant that she permitted only anal intercourse (as Billy’s does in the book). I liked it so much that this added to my terror of being gay. It turned out that I liked girls, but the memory of my attractions to the ‘wrong’ people never left me . . . the impulse to bisexuality was very strong; my earliest sexual experiences taught me that sexual desire is mutable.”

We follow Billy from boyhood to the present day where, aged 70, he is directing a production of Romeo and Juliet at the school at which he was once a pupil. One of the most stunning chapters, set in the 1980s, takes the reader to the home of Atkins, one of Billy’s fellow pupils, who is dying of Aids. “I wasn’t afraid of dying; I was afraid of feel- ing guilty, forever, because I wasn’t dying,” Billy writes. “I was not ashamed of my sex life; I was ashamed of not wanting to be there for the people who were dying.”

As well as featuring circles of lovers and friends, Irving’s novel returns again and again to sexual difference and its place within family and community. Somehow Irving makes the all-pervasive air of accept- ance believable, nobody rolls their eyes at the sea of sexual identities crowding the pages. “I like sexual outsiders; they attract me,” Irving has said. “I find them brave . . . our society may be a little more tolerant of sexual differences than in the Fifties and Sixties, but this doesn’t mean that the sexual outsider or misfit is ‘safe’.”

These “outsiders” are safe in his books, indeed they thrive and the book’s message is resolute. Take joy and pride in a world of sexual possibility. Enjoy the crazy ride. And know a few wrestling moves: they’ll come in handy if a bigot picks a fight.