In One Person by John Irving

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In One Person by John Irving

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: New England, wrestling, sexual oddities and a visit to Vienna - this could only be John Irving. Sensitively narrated by a bisexual writer looking back on his life, from early sexual confusion to the AIDS virus that hit the US in the 1980s this is superb storytelling about sexual identity and the loneliness of the outsider.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Doubleday
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780857520968

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In One Person is a sensitive story of sexual identity, narrated by a bisexual writer who is now in his later years, recalling not only his own coming to terms with his sexuality and attraction to men, women and transgenders while at school in a New England school, but also his later years and the devastating impact of the AIDS virus in 1980s America. At times the content is quite graphic, but John Irving captures the outsider's feelings beautifully in this tale of secrecy in a confusing world of identity.

Irving is always at his best when it comes to writing about outsiders and is at his most effective when he writes with passion and anger at the treatment of those individuals. It's somewhat ironic that the late 1970s and 1980s have such a devastating impact on the theatrical characters in this story as this was the decade that saw Irving's own output reach such a consistently high standard with books such as The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules. Since that period his output has been more patchy, but this marks a return to something like his very best form. As partly with Garp its focus is on people's attitudes to sexual differences.

There are plenty of Irving standards in the book. There's the New England setting, the college life, the wrestling team, Vienna, absent parents, writers, sexual variations and the main character even has a speech impediment, albeit not quite so distinctive as Owen Meany's. As one character rails to the writer-narrator at one point: 'You create all these characters who are so sexually different as you might call them ... and then you expect us to sympathize with them, or feel sorry for them, or something'. That sums up Irving's own work pretty well and when he's on form, as here, he does it quite excellently.

The narrator, Billy, certainly has an unusual upbringing. At first we know little about his absentee father, but his mother's own father is a local lumber mill owner whose penchant is to act as a woman in the local amateur dramatic productions. His aunt is a fearsome woman, who often competes with her father for the women's roles. She in turn is married to the alcoholic, local boys' college admissions tutor who is renowned for his lax approach to entry into the school and is sympathetic to his father-in-law. At school, Billy has a crush on the star of the school wrestling team but also on the local librarian, the formidable Miss Frost. The arrival of Billy's soon to be step-father to teach and direct Shakespeare at the college provides the first of many literary references to gender swapping and differing types of love.

The cast of characters are certainly rich in their idiosyncracies and preferences. Over half of the book is devoted to Billy's early years, although he does go off at tangents and discusses future relationships at times. While much of this was kept private and often fought against, with the school doctors suggesting these feeling could be 'cured' as Billy and his class mates grew up, a more permissive attitude developed. Initially Billy experienced this in Europe on a year abroad (this is Irving - it's almost compulsory for his characters to go to Vienna at some point), but even in the US there was more acceptance until the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s had frightening consequences for many. But what Irving does so well is to evoke sympathy with his main characters, particularly Billy, who often has to deal with these feelings alone. Irving notes that bisexuals in particular suffered from being not trusted by either straight or gay people of either gender. Add in the additional sexual confusion of transgenders, and the whole thing becomes even more messy. But by invoking such sympathy in the main character, it is hard for the reader to judge Billy's choices - although some characters certainly do.

As with all Irving's best works, the subject matter of the stories can sound heavy, but fans will know that his genius is in making these often difficult subjects highly entertaining. While it might be hard to believe that even a particularly lax admissions tutor might attract quite the range of sexual variations that this Vermont college attracts, particularly when the school itself is not particularly liberal, some poetic licence can be allowed when the stories are this entertaining. I have kept hoping that Irving will write another book that is as memorable as his 1980s output in terms of characters and stories. This is that book.

Our huge thanks to the kind people at Doubleday for letting us have a copy of this book.

An obvious next step is Last Night in Twisted River while for more on the whole thorny issue of sexual identity, then Annabel by Kathleen Winter was short-listed for the 2011 Orange Prize.

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