Fans of John Irvin will be thrilled to discover that he explores many familiar themes in his new novel, In One Person: quirky townsfolk, New England, wrestling and sexuality. Within the first paragraph, Irving’s bisexual protagonist, Billy Abbott, a writer in his 60s, recounts how his imagination and desire to write came alive with his longing to sleep with his elementary school teacher. And with the proclamation “We are formed by what we desire,” Irving sets up a decades-long portrait of a man who, truly knowing himself, sets off to explore the rest of the world.
Billy grows up in the 1950s. With a small-minded mother who refuses to understand him and an absent father who may be gay, the likeable lad spends his youth in an all-boys school in Vermont. His spare time is taken up with theatrical productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen in which female roles are often portrayed by male actors, notably Billy’s amusing, kind grandfather, whose proclivities continue offstage. In an early scene that demonstrates Irving’s effortless ability to create exhilarating dialogue, he thoughtfully and playfully establishes that Billy’s story is not one of self-loathing. His stepfather, Richard, and Miss Frost, the mysterious librarian of Billy’s earliest desires, banter about inappropriate crushes in literature, finally counselling Billy that there are no “wrong” people upon whom to have crushes. “We’re free to have crushes on anyone we want,” says Richard. And so Billy does: Early obsessions include his closest friend, Elaine, and golden boy wrestler Jacques Kittredge. As Billy grows and moves onto the world stage of life in New York and abroad in Europe, later passions are as varied and heartfelt.
Irving considers this novel his most political. From an author who coined the term “sexual suspect” over 30 years ago in The World According to Garp, one might have expected an exploration of a character like Billy earlier, but this novel brings to mainstream fiction what LGBT literature has explored for years. It also stands as a heart-wrenching testament to the early days of the American AIDS epidemic.
Irving’s touching humour and thoughtful characterization are in top form, and by using first-person narration rather than the more detached third-person voice he usually favours, he lends intimacy and warmth to Billy and his story. The moral of the novel—that labels do not define a person—is a timeless one engagingly brought to life by a master storyteller.