Review: In One Person
I have a lot of things to say about John Irving’s In One Person, but I’m going to start with a few very notable notes.
- If you – like me — expend much energy in watching your own language so that you are as right about the right words as you can be, and are therefore likely to be annoyed by another person being wrong with the wrong words, you’re going to want to prepare yourself to leave that behind for a little while. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.
- The book is as John Irving as John Irving ever is. If you don’t like stories about the connection between passing and generalised cruelty, or how small places in New England can be absurdly broad-minded, you’re just not going to like this, but you should try.
If books have ever been agents of change in your life, you’ll identify with writer Billy Abbott, as he narrates his fictional memoir, where he begins as a boy without a library card in Vermont, with a mother who seems to hate him and a locally infamous cross-dressing grandfather.
It’s a different world than one I’ve ever known — where teenage boys drill each other in German lessons by going over phrases by Goethe (“Passion brings pain”) and Rilke (“All angels are terrifying”). Billy and his teenaged crush, private school wrestler Jacques Kitterage, throw the phrases back and forth like they’re just practicing German, and not actually telling us everything we need to know about the progress of the LGBT community over 60 tumultuous years.
All of this combines into what is not — in fact — a love story for the LGBTQ community, as others have attested, but a love letter to a community seemingly brimming with the kinds of stories authors love to tell: characters who are themselves, regardless of the consequences, characters who never stop trying, honesty bringing an unjust downfall, or how people learn to live quietly in times so that others may later live loudly. People who are unable to say things they want to say so they live those things instead.
There’s a humbling progression of thought in the book, where Billy makes it clear he is not going to feel guilty for being linguistically stuck in a past that he still can’t believe happened when it comes to terminology and language. He is later humbled by meeting his (gay) father who, in turn, mocks him for being outraged at being called a “fag”. Irving paints lush intellectual and political landscapes that make us live the worlds of others — worlds where being called a “fag” is simply a reality to be borne, and another world where switching from saying “transsexual” to “transgender” or adding Q to the end of LGBT is difficult to remember and doesn’t feel worth the effort, but the word “fag” becomes intolerable.
And then there’s gay marriage.
Larry would have laughed to see me supporting gay marriage, because Larry knew what I thought of any marriage. “Old Mr. Monogamy,” Larry would have teased me. But gay marriage is what the gay and bi kids want, and I support those kids.
You can’t write a queer character from 1950′s New England, through the swinging 70s and into the AIDS crisis in the 1980s without talking about death. In One Person continues Irving’s characteristicaly dispassionate approach to death, with characters who give up by suicide but also characters who take control with suicide. Other characters, in numbers you can barely believe, die from AIDS in the early and mid eighties when Bill is living in New York City. He visits the hospital to see one friend and finds another, also dying, disfigured, disbelieving. Billy is our hardened tour guide through these awful, historic times, feeling for us our collective survivors’ guilt and, at the same time, not wasting the time he’s managed to save.
The women in In One Person are formidable. John Irving has been lauded for his bold feminism throughout his career and it is in evidence once again as the women in his story — those who grow into women, regardless of whether they started life as boys or girls — shape the protagonist and the world around him. His struggles with his small-minded mother and his spineless-but-understanding step father are the mirror image that shatters the “abusive father/weak mother” trope.
All of Irving’s almost 450 pages tell stories. There aren’t pages discussing the nature of a tree or the harsh Vermont winters. The book is pure plot and story and a life worth living, and certainly worth reading about.