Book: In One Person
Author: John Irving
Great line: “Ambition robs you of your childhood. The moment you want to become an adult—in any way—something in your childhood dies.”
Being as it is a novel by John Irving, In One Person is on a controversial subject. William Francis Dean, usually just Billy or Bill, is a boy who begins the story as a child conflicted by his “crushes on the wrong people.” First it’s his mother’s new husband, then his small town’s intersex librarian, Miss Frost. The novel is essentially a chronicle of Billy’s sexuality, a subject of great confusion to everyone except for him.
Being as it is a novel by John Irving, In One Person takes place primarily in a small New England town and focuses on a highly irregular family. Billy’s father left before he was born, and his mother is the subject of many whispers in First Sister, Vermont. His central male figure is his stepfather, Richard Abbott, Shakespeare teacher and actor. Beyond those there are his toxic aunt and grandmother, his bumbling yet good-natured grandfather, and his equally bumbling and good-natured alcoholic uncle.
In One Person is certainly a worthwhile read. It speaks frankly and unflinchingly on bisexuality, a topic rarely explored in mainstream fiction. John Irving has a talent for creating characters so uniquely crafted and refined that you would half expect to run in to them at school. In typical Irving style, he covers a wide expanse of settings and cultural atmospheres seamlessly: from the Cold War era of Billy’s childhood, to the free loving 60s of his early adulthood, finally screeching into the years of AIDS and Reagan.
However, the reader does not for a sentence forget that they are reading a John Irving novel. The Billy Abbott of In One Person has the same self-righteous candor and dysfunctional familial relations as Homer Wells of Irving’s 1985 novel The Cider House Rules. Similarly, Billy’s gender-bending friend Elaine bears a stunning resemblance in character and function to Homer’s gender-bending friend Melony.
All of that withstanding, In One Person is still a highly enlightening, engaging read that is well crafted from start to finish, and is remarkable if only for its divergence from the cookie-cutter norms of sexuality which are so pervasive in modern literary fiction.