Reader Review by Mike Jones
In John Irving's 1978 breakthrough fourth novel, The World According to Garp, he tackled many social issues, one of which was the societal role of gender in general, but also more specifically of the transgendered individual. Roberta Muldoon, T. S. Garp's best friend, happens to be an ex-football player who has decided he is more suited to the female gender. Roberta, so obviously hulking a presence, becomes a symbol of sexual identity that cannot be ignored or bullied; you can't go around her, you can't go over her; although you may not want to, you must acknowledge her, she's the elephant in the room.
Since then, the author's gone on to address other thorny, even taboo, topics, like incest, rape, and abortion, in his novels. The middle part of his career featured more tempered fiction, with spiritual themes and characters, such as the Christ-like Owen Meany. Though families in turmoil, broken in some way, continued to dominate his artistic motif throughout his career, Irving backed away from those more contentious subjects; until now.
In his new book, In One Person, Irving returns the issue of sexual identity to the fore. This time the protagonist, born William Francis Dean, later known as William Marshall Abbott, is introduced as a sexually confused teen who is smitten with the town librarian, a Miss Frost. This might seem normal from a distance, but as we zoom in on Miss Frost, we notice just how awfully tall and broad shouldered she is, and what big hands she has. The reader then learns (surprise!) our addled teen is also saddled with an infatuation for his handsome and bibliophilic step-dad. But when that passing fancy passes, it is soon replaced with a obsession for a swaggering and bullying wrestler (yes, wrestling is back), known as Kitteridge; a contemporary at his school. The story opens in the small town of First Sister, Vermont in the late 1950s and follows William, aka Bill or Billy, throughout his life; a formula that has worked for Irving in the past; think Garp, Owen Meany, Ciderhouse Rules, Until I Found You... The author uses this bird's-eye view narrative once again to great effect, merging a personal chronicle with the pages of history.
Once again, at little cost to the plot, Irving rests his literary reputation on his characters. He animates them with quirks, tics, and deformities so effectively, they seem at times to transcend written form. He both inhabits and inhibits his creations, endearing them to his readers. Memorable figures-- a la Pip, Jane Eyre, Tess-- populate Irving's best work; a category with which In One Person can now be associated. Bill, his best friend and confidante, Elaine, his sympathetic grandfather Harry, the enigmatic Kitteridge, and the brave Miss Frost all join Irving's oeuvre of unforgettables.
Throughout his long career, besides culling material from his own fatherless childhood experience, Irving has ever drawn upon the writings of the major Victorian novelists. Influences such as Dickens, Hardy, and the Brontes, color his early work. Günter Grass shows up a little later when The Tin Drum's unreliable narrator, Oskar Matzerath, models for the eponymous character in Irving's parable A Prayer for Owen Meany. In this latest, Flaubert, Ibsen and James Baldwin join his cadre of clout. The dominant thread woven through Irving's body of work has been the effect of cogent women on malleable young-men-or-boys-sans-father. Though, in In One Person, the strong woman happens to have once been a man.
Young Billy attends the private boy's school in town, Favorite River Academy, where his mother, Aunt Muriel, Uncle Bob and grandfather all work and reside. It is in that liberal-arts-heavy environment that he is heavily influenced by literature from the town library (chiefly due to his infatuation with the librarian) and by the seasonal dramatic productions in which his entire family, including himself, are involved in one way or another; most notably, Billy's cross-dressing grandfather, a favorite of the theater going community, who never fails to land a female role (mostly in Shakespeare). When you stop to think of his small band of nurturers, it may seem easy to understand Billy's proclivity, however Irving argues that nurture is not the only factor at work here in the boy's formative years, nature will also later play a role.
As a bi-sexual man, monogamy is not a favorite subject, shall we say, of dear Bill; one of his favorite novels after all is Madame Bovary. He becomes what you might call an equal opportunity lover, playing no favorites, at the same time non-committal. Yet, in the course of allowing fair shots at his affection, he is no stranger to heartbreak. Like many of Irving's leads, he becomes a writer, coming into his own in the mid-1980s, but with the AIDS epidemic looming we sense a marathon gauntlet for our hero to maneuver through. How Bill reacts is a little disappointing, yet maybe more realistic than Irving readers are used to. Bill, staying true to his character, is hardly present for the gay community during the epidemic of epidemics. He bears witness to many acquaintances demises, but much unlike his ex-lover Larry, who shrouds himself in the service of AIDS sufferers, he all but hides away, distancing himself from the guilt and the pain. He reflects:
I wasn’t afraid of dying; I was afraid of feeling guilty, forever, because I wasn’t dying. I couldn’t accept that I would or might escape the AIDS virus for as accidental a reason as being told to wear a condom by a doctor who disliked me, or that the random luck of my being a top would or might save me. I was not ashamed of my sex life; I was ashamed of myself for not wanting to be there for the people who were dying.
Bill is conspicuously absent during the milestone Stonewall riots in his old Greenwich Village stomping grounds; he continues to eschew monogamy; he champions no Gay rights causes. Even as he ages, he seems a bit out of touch, having trouble remembering the millennial era acronym LGBT (nevermind the Q for "questioning", he'll continue to leave it out of parlance). But in the end it's safe to say, without giving too much away, that he does come to a sort of emotional understanding of himself, a healing of sorts.
In One Person has already been compared to Garp, mostly favorably, because of the obvious similarities. There are the stories behind place names, the mythical tales of ancestors, the catch phrases, odd objects (fetishes), invented psycho-analytics, and eccentric characters willing to perform implausible acts for the sake of their deep seated beliefs. It's evident that Irving fans enjoy him most when he flexes his "progressive" muscle. It is what is most admirable in the veteran author, that tolerance, that inclusiveness, and that almost militant stance he can take at times. Like T.S. Garp running down the speeder in his supposedly safe suburban neighborhood, he is protecting his people. And you get a sense that his people are all the world.