Making the personal universal
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, May 2012
The title of John Irving’s latest novel is a declaration of its ambition. In One Person is an attempt to capture the harrowing personal journey of a single man as he finds his own sexual, emotional and even literary identity—and to capture it in a way that matters to every single person who picks up the novel. In that way, In One Person had to become a book not just about a single human being, but about every human being. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, but as this novel unfolds with all the grace and power we’ve come to expect from John Irving, it’s clear that he’s done it.
At the heart of the novel is Billy, Irving’s narrator, a successful novelist reflecting on his life in old age. He begins his tale with the story of his fascination with the local librarian, an attraction that sparks both a sexual and literary awakening. From there we follow him through his high school and college years, on to his early successes and even into the early years of the AIDS crisis, when Billy—who is bisexual—watches his friends succumb to the disease.
Billy’s tale is an emotionally wrenching one, and Irving portrays it unflinchingly. He hones in on the most vital parts of his protagonist, drawing them out with vivid, bittersweet prose. In One Person never falls into the trap of becoming a preachy, issues-based novel. The issues are there, but the focus is on Billy, and on the fascinating and often confusing life he leads. That’s where the heart of the novel is, and Irving never strays.
In One Person is among the most challenging, dense novels Irving has ever produced, but readers willing to take the journey will find immense rewards. It’s a staggeringly ambitious work, and its success reaffirms Irving’s place among our greatest working novelists.