In One Person

By John Irving

(Simon & Schuster, $28, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

With his 13th novel, John Irving, who now is 70, again turns to certain topics that have obsessed his writing career: prep school boys, wrestling, Northern New England, Vienna, absent fathers, angry mothers, cross-dressing and sex, sex, sex and more sex. Irving’s early blockbuster book and film, “The World According to Garp,” won him a huge and loyal following (and launched a million “World According to….” headlines and takeoffs). He cemented his standing as one of the more interesting contemporary American writers with “The Cider House Rules” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” among others.

Irving’s books are not strictly autobiographical, but his life experiences of attending prep school, competing in wrestling and searching for his biological father have all informed his work.

What is this book about?

“In One Person” explores the extremely complex emotional tangles of one bi-sexual man, Billy, whose many crushes and lovers include a straight woman, two transgender women, gay boys and gay men, all encountered in his quest for self-definition and acceptance – and  played out against the all-too-real background of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. If this sounds complicated, it is. Irving swings back and forth in time and place (and you could say Billy swings back and forth as well), but readers along for the ride will enjoy the journey.

Why you’ll like it:

Irving is an original. He’s an admirer of Dickens who, like the English master, knows how to imagine vivid characters, the kind of people who keep you reading even if the plot grows melodramatic. And he’s not afraid of controversial topics. This exploration of the twists and turns of sexuality and how it shapes one’s identity is a challenging, revealing story, one that throws new light on the peculiar American tension between expressing oneself honestly and fully and fitting into the expectations of others. The world according to Billy (sorry, impossible to resist) may be an unfamiliar place, but you won’t be bored there.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “ [It] tells the oftentimes outrageous story of bisexual novelist Billy Abbott, who comes of age in the uptight 1950s and explores his sexuality through two decadent decades into the plague-ridden 1980s and finally to a more positive present day. Sexual confusion sets in early for Billy, simultaneously attracted to both the local female librarian and golden boy wrestler Jacques Kittredge, who treats Billy with the same disdain he shows Billy’s best friend (and occasional lover) Elaine. Faced with an unsympathetic mother and an absent father who might have been gay, Billy travels to Europe, where he has affairs with a transgendered female and an older male poet, an early AIDS activist. Irving’s take on the AIDS epidemic in New York is not totally persuasive (not enough confusion, terror, or anger), and his fractured time and place doesn’t allow him to generate the melodramatic string of incidents that his novels are famous for. In the end, sexual secrets abound in this novel, which intermittently touches the heart as it fitfully illuminates the mutability of human desire.”

“What is ‘normal’? Does it really matter? In Irving’s latest novel … nearly everyone has a secret, but the characters who embrace and accept their own differences and those of others are the most content.  … This wonderful blend of thought-provoking, well-constructed, and meaningful writing is what one has come to expect of Irving, and it also makes for an enjoyable page-turner,” says Library Journal.

“Billy Dean (aka Billy Abbott) has a difficult time holding it together in one person, for his bisexuality pulls him in (obviously) two different directions. Billy comes of age in what is frequently, and erroneously, billed as a halcyon and more innocent age, the 1950s. … Woody Allen’s bon mot about bisexuality is that it doubled one’s chances for a date, but in this novel Irving explores in his usual discursive style some of the more serious and exhaustive consequences of Allen’s one-liner,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Says Ron Charles in The Washington Post: “…the sophisticated and garish elements of ‘In One Person’ are laced together in an act of literary transvestism…[the] wonderful first section of the novel shows what a ringmaster Irving can be. His looping chronology gives the impression of aimless digression only until we catch up and find him on the trail of some larger truth. The story swings confidently from the burlesque comedy of Billy’s dolled-up grandfather to the poignant anxiety of the boy’s sexual confusion. And it’s full of insights about classic theatre and novels, all gracefully integrated into Billy’s struggle to figure out what kind of person he is.”

When is it available?

If you want to wrestle with “In One Person,” it can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and the Barbour, Dwight and Goodwin branches.

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