Regular readers of John Irving flock to his literary novels for the strengths of his quirky, flawed characters as much as their circumstances. Irving fans have come to expect certain elements, present in so many of the author’s works—a New England setting, boarding school culture, an absent father, the search for self, wrestling, and of course, bears. All of these are present and accounted for in one way or another in his latest novel, In One Person.
Billy Abbott, of the small town Vermont town First Sisters, suffers from what he calls “dangerous crushes.” At age fifteen, Billy’s crushes include the town librarian Miss Frost, his stepfather Richard Abbott, who teaches Shakespeare at Favorite River Academy, and Kittredge, the physically stunning bully from the wrestling team. Billy’s crushes know no bounds of age or gender, something he acknowledges in conversations with Miss Frost. She guides him though the great love stories of literature, from the Brontë sisters to Dickens and finally James Baldwin’s novel of same-sex desire, Giovanni’s Room. As in many novels, literature becomes salvation.
The theater looms large in Billy’s life. His mother spends time in the wings as the line prompter for the community theater group’s productions, while his petite, sprightly maternal grandfather Harry is well known for playing leading lady roles. In an appropriate turn, Billy himself is cast as the sprite Ariel in The Tempest. Genetics seem to have much to do with his sexual proclivities, through both Harry and Billy’s absent birth father, a man he knows little about until later searches through school yearbooks reveal surprising truths.
Told in the immediate first person point of view, In One Person spans more than fifty years, chronicling Billy’s myriad relationships with men, male-to-female transsexuals (before the term transgender came into use, he points out), and even a few women. The novel is at turns absurdly funny, broadly comic and ultimately poignant. In One Person stands as a character-driven exploration of self, and the often fluid nature of sexuality.