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In One Person by John Irving

December 26, 2012


In past reviews (Last Night In Twisted River, 2010),I’ve commented about Irving recycling elements from novels. The chart of common Irving themes has been removed from his Wikipedia page, but this novel would check a number of those boxes (New England, wrestling, writers as characters, sexual “outliers,” etc.)

This is the story of Billy Abbott, a bi-sexual man, trying to find his way in the world. As with most of Irving’s novels, the bulk of this novel is a coming-of-age story in which the main character wrestles (most Irving novels have a great deal of figurative and literal wrestling) with his identity. He is helped along (and sometimes confused) by an expansive cast of characters, most significantly by the trans-gender town librarian of his small New England town.

What this book could have been was a story about the persecution of people with different sexual orientations. But it’s only a little about people struggling for acceptance from other people (I actually thought in some cases people were unrealistically accepting, especially for the time period). Rather, most of the struggle for acceptance is within the characters. Which may be why some of it feels heavy-handed, though genuine. It sometimes feels as if the characters exist as points to be made—mainly that sexuality is mutable. It’s not black-and-white. It’s a spectrum.

Irving is one of my favorite authors, and I often find his books to be a bit of a slog for the first third, then hit a point where they really pull me in, and wrap up with an epilogue that leaves me startled by how much I care about the characters I’m about to say goodbye to. He is a master at the epilogue. So it made me smile when I got to the epilogue—with 1/3 of the book remaining! And as he started to go through what happened to his cast, I felt it again. Of course, some characters meant more to me than others, but I was again surprised by how much I liked so many of them. And then he got to what I thought might have been the best 100 pages I’ve read in an Irving novel in a long time. It takes place in New York City in the 1980s, at the heart of the AIDS epidemic, as character after character is felled by the disease. As much as Irving writes about the teenage years, here is where he’s at his best—making you feel the significance of a historical event by putting his characters into it. His research is impeccable, so the details feel real and true. And because he has shown a willingness to kill off even his most beloved characters, when the AIDS epidemic starts claiming people, you fear the worst. The dread is palpable.

That said, I’m not sure who this book is about. Irving said in an interview that Billy is the main character, but two other characters are the heroes of the novel. For me, as much as I liked many of the characters, I didn’t feel like any of them were as well-drawn, as lovable or as relatable as an Owen Meany, Homer Wells (Cider House Rules) or Ruth Cole (A Widow For One Year). Irving’s strength has always been in his ability to develop strong characters, but here it felt like all his characters were servants to his theme.

Overall, a pretty enjoyable read. I’d love for Irving to try something completely different (maybe something that’s not a coming-of-age, New England wrestler story), but who am I to complain? Two of his novels make my top 10 favorites.

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