The reason I titled this review of John Irving’s “In One Person” this way is because it is a book that encompasses all these things and more. It’s also about the way people live and die while trying to make sense of everything that happens along the way. In this novel, it’s about the life of Billy Abbott, a boy with a quirky mother, a cross-dressing grandfather, and an extended family that never seems to fully understand him. Part of his quest in life is to learn more about his father, a man he’s never met…and is never quite sure he ever will meet.
The beginning of the novel discusses Billy’s need to learn more about himself…about life…and he tries to do this by reading fiction. His Aunt Muriel gives him hand me down romance novels and when he reads the comments his angry female cousin made in the margins he learns more about her as well. I found cousin Gerry’s comments both entertaining and amusing for a variety of reasons, partly because most heroines in romance novels with covers that have women in long flowing gowns are usually self-congratulatory prigs:
“The Heroine was a self-congratulatory prig, who would never let her boyfriend touch her breasts…Gerry responded in the margin with: “I would rub your t–s RAW! Just try and stop me!”
One of the most interesting characters is Grandpa Harry. He’s an old Yankee lumberman who LOVES to put on his over-bearing wife’s dresses and act in school plays. I won’t give any spoilers here because there are a few surprises. But Grandpa Harry plays an important part in Billy’s life and is often the only voice of reason in his life.
It’s important to understand this novel takes place during a time when the word “Gay” didn’t even exist. Here’s an example of a conversation Billy has that discusses his attraction to “transvestites.” You also have to remember this is before we all became so politically correct.
“My attraction to transsexuals was pretty specific. (I’m sorry, but we didn’t use to say ‘transgender’…not until the eighties. Transvestites never did it for me, and the transsexuals had to be what they call ‘passable’…”
Of course this explanation of what attracts Billy as a bi-sexual is vital to the story with respect to how he managed to avoid being infected with the AIDS virus. If I go into more detail here I run the risk of another spoiler, so I’ll stop while I’m ahead. But I do want to say this one thing. This account of what actually happened during the height of the AIDS epidemic is the most accurate I have ever read in fiction. Irving either did a great deal of research, or he experienced all this for himself, because I know for a fact that he nailed it with perfection, from the Hickman catheter to PCP pneumonia. And if you are young and you are LGBT you should read this novel just for the historical facts. You won’t hear them anywhere else. I have over ninety published works out in the LGBT genre and I touch on these topics, but it’s not a place I want to go into detail about because it’s just too painful to revisit.
Billy’s relationship with Miss Frost, the town librarian, is unusual and yet believable. As a young adult, Billy’s not sure what he is or who he is. He’s not sure what Miss Frost is or who she is either. But he’s attracted to her and he discovers his love of reading through her. The beginning of his fascination with her begins at the public library and follows him for the rest of his life. As in all Irving novels, it’s detailed, quirky, and very civilized. But at the same time edges toward controversial because Miss Frost is a good deal older than Billy.
You can’t read an Irving novel without reading a few strong political statements. In this case, a few of those statements were made about the war in Vietnam. And they are issues gay men still deal with on a daily basis to this day.
“I’ll tell you when I might take seriously the idea of service to my country,” I began. “When local, state, and federal legislation, which currently criminalizes homosexual acts between consenting adults, is repealed; when the country’s archaic anti-sodomy laws are overturned; when psychiatrists stop diagnosing me and my friends as clinically abnormal, medically incompetent freaks in need of ‘rehabilitation’; when the media stops representing us as sissy, pansy, fairy, child-molesting PERVERTS!”
I’ve often complained about how gay men are treated by some women as pet poodles. But Irving takes it to a completely different level in this novel with one of his characters. To give anymore information would also spoil this part of the book. But giving this example won’t hurt.
“They find something they love about you…even if there’s just one thing they find endearing.”
Followed by this:
“Those things they DON’T love about you…those things they don’t even LIKE…well, guess what women do about THOSE things? They imagine they can CHANGE those things…THAT’S what women do! They imagine they can change you…”
I’ve read a few of the other reviews about this book and I’ve found them interesting. I have to agree this book is not a fast read and like all Irving novels it takes a while to get into. But I’ve also always appreciated that Irving’s novels take a long time to read because I want them to remain with me as long as possible. And every single aspect of this book is important to the overall story, and I’m glad I’m not the kind of reader who stops reading a book too soon. From bullying to AIDS, from classic gay literature to the paranormal, this novel takes the LGBT experience to a literary level with intensity, humor, and detail. And never in an offensive way.